Tension prevails in the southern Syrian city of Sweida after gunfire rang out during a sit-in held by the families of 27 civilians abducted by the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS).
The civilians have been held hostage since July 25th, when ISIS carried out a series of suicide bombings, shootings and stabbings that left more than 250 people dead across the southwestern province, most of them civilians.
It later emerged the extremist group also had kidnapped a group of mostly Druze women and their children during the attack.
Since their abduction, a young man among the group has been executed, an older woman has died under uncertain circumstances, and on October 2nd, a 25-year-old woman was shot in the head, triggering the current protest.
Families had been protesting in front of the provincial headquarters building in an attempt to pressure the Syrian regime and international community to take serious action to facilitate the return of their loved ones.
They had been holding the protest for six days when it was suspended Monday (October 8th) amid heightened tensions, local activist Nizar Bou Ali told Diyaruna.
"Military operations on the edges of Sweida province have dragged on for a long time", he said, and there are reports that ISIS has issued a set of new demands regarding the release of the captives.
These purportedly include a $1 million ransom payment for every abducted girl and the release of ISIS women detained in regime prisons.
Sit-in has been suspended
The sit-in had been staged in front of the provincial headquarters, which is the largest government building in Sweida, Bou Ali said.
"It was meant to be an open-ended protest, but was suspended amid heightened tensions after shots were fired at the building by local gunmen," he said.
The incident began when members of an armed group in the area joined the families holding the sit-in, he said.
Soon after they arrived, some of those members opened fire, entered the building and destroyed some items inside it in protest against the perceived apathy government officials have shown towards the families of the abductees.
"They also sought to draw greater attention to the sit-in, which has not garnered media attention due to the blackout orders issued by the Syrian regime," Bou Ali said, noting that it has received little mention on media or social media outlets.
Sweida placed on high alert
After the shooting incident, Syrian regime forces and affiliated militias were placed on high alert to contain the situation, Bou Ali said, while local armed groups blocked off a number of roads.
"In light of the tension, the abductees’ families decided to suspend the sit-in and resume it in next few days, after receiving promises from influential religious figures in the region of a pending solution to the issue," he said.
They also announced their willingness to cover the expense of repairing the damage to the provincial headquarters building, he added.
Bou Ali noted that the families’ determination to free their loved ones stems partly from the advent of the winter season, which will complicate the search for the abductees in the rugged mountainous area where ISIS elements hide.