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Syrian Rebels Use Caged Hostages as Human Shields to Deter Airstrikes

Caged prisoners believed to be former army officers from dictator Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite sect were paraded through streets of a rebel-held suburb of the Syrian capital Damascus, apparently used as human shields to deter further bombardments in the area, according to video clips and images posted on social media.

Syrian opposition activists posted propaganda videos and images under the hashtag “Cages of Protection” two days after Assad regime forces shelled Douma, the Damascus suburb in the Eastern Ghouta region, killing at least 40 people in a market.

“Women and kids mostly” were among the casualties of the recent strikes, said Ahmad, a doctor from Douma who asked to be identified by first name only, The New York Times (NYT) reports.

Baraa Abdulrahman, a media activist close to the Army of Islam, the dominant rebel group in the region, indicated that “the prisoners were captured army officers from President Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite sect [an offshoot of Shiite Islam] and their families,” adds the Times. 

In one of the video clips published Sunday, Abdulrahman, who uses a nom de guerre for security, added that the caged captives were being placed on rooftops and in streets throughout the rebel-controlled territory “so they can taste our misery.”

“Human rights and humanitarian organizations will start calling on the opposition to release those officers,” he said, standing next to one of the cages. “We didn’t hear those organizations calling to save the people of Eastern Ghouta.”

The Army of Islam has not claimed responsibility for the spectacle. However, it is the most powerful rebel faction in the area and it seems unlikely that the media activists could have carried out the stunt without the group’s blessing.

“The rebel group is thought to be holding captives seized as front lines around the capital have shifted over the past two years,” points out the Times. “It was impossible to tell from the visual evidence shared online, however, how many hostages were deployed across the region or if the public display might have been a show intended to sway public opinion against further bombardment of the region by government forces and their Russian allies.”

The new propaganda videos contain interviews with caged hostages who demanded that the Syrian government stop its airstrikes on the region and negotiate their release.

“It was very unlikely that, given their situation, any of those interviewed by the activists or local journalists from channels that support the rebellion felt they could speak freely,” notes NYT.

“I hope the regime and the Russian jets stop the bombardment,” declared a female prisoner identified as being originally from Assad’s hometown.

Although the male captives appeared to be members of Syrian president’s Alawite sect, Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma, suggested on Twitter that some of the females appeared to be Sunni Muslims.

Saudi Arabia reportedly provides financial support to The Army of Islam, a group led by Zahran Alloush, a Sunni military leader who claims that his faction has come in direct contact with Daniel Rubinstein, President Obama’s envoy to Syria.

“The rebel stronghold of Eastern Ghouta has been under intense bombardment since the insurgents managed to block the main northern entrance to Damascus and threatened the road of the international airport,” reports the Times. “The area around the airport has been the scene of intense fighting in recent days and airstrikes that the rebels suspect were carried out by Russian warplanes.”

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