Iran helps release of Turkish reporters in Syria
ISTANBUL (AP) – One Turkish journalist detained in Syria is a devout Muslim who was on a Gaza-bound aid ship targeted in an Israeli raid in 2010, and reported being wounded by American bombing on a trip to Afghanistan. His cameraman is a film school student who, ahead of his Syria trip, ducked his father’s disapproval by claiming he was headed to Italy.
Adem Ozkose, 34, and Hamit Coskun, 21, are expected to be released after negotiations reflecting the opaque blend of regional rivalry and cooperation between Turkey, a foe of Syria’s regime, and Iran, a staunch supporter of Damascus. The Syrian government is struggling to crush an opposition movement that is increasingly retaliating with armed strikes.
Syria curbed outside media access except for a few official tours, and international journalists periodically slipped into the country, several dying in efforts to cover the uprising. Ozkose, a reporter for Milat, a startup Turkish newspaper with an Islamic background that prints 10,000 copies daily, crossed the border with Coskun, a freelancer, and a budget of $2,000.
On March 10, Ozkose, who had previously lived in Syria, called his editors from Idlib, a northern province, at a time when Syrian forces with tanks and artillery were preparing to move against poorly armed rebels there.
`”We’re going to follow the demonstration here, and we’ll report something soon,”` Turgut Alp Boyraz, foreign editor at Milat, cited Ozkose as saying. That was the last the paper heard from him until the two journalists made brief phone calls from Syrian detention to their families on May 5.
However, Iran was acting as diplomatic go-between between Syria and Turkey, which has shut its embassy in Syria and wants President Bashar Assad to resign for attacking population centers. On Friday, a Turkish newspaper, Hurriyet Daily News, cited an unnamed Iranian diplomat as saying a deal had been struck for the release of the two men.
As in Syria, Turkey and Iran back opposing factions in Iraq in what some analysts call a proxy conflict tinged with sectarian tension. Turkey’s role as a NATO member troubles Iran, whose nuclear program alarms the West. Yet the regional heavyweights have close business ties and keep their public diplomacy civil.
Iran sought Turkish help this year in releasing Iranian pilgrims who were detained by the Syrian opposition, and Turkey “made efforts to contact some people on the ground” to secure their freedom, a Turkish official said on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
After Ozkose and Coskun were seized by pro-government groups in Syria, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu raised the case in a conversation with his Iranian counterpart, Ali Akbar Salehi.
According to the Turkish official, Davutoglu essentially said: `”If you have any influence on the Syrians, it’s time to show it … it’s better for you to take some steps.”`
A recent video showing envoys from an Islamic aid group, known by its Turkish acronym IHH, with the journalists in Damascus offered the first public images of the pair since they disappeared two months ago.
“God willing, we will be back home in the nearest time possible, thanks to everyone who prayed for us,” Ozkose, stocky and bearded, says in the video.
“Today is the happiest day of my life,” says Coskun, who has shoulder-length hair. Both men look healthy.
IHH operated the boat on which nine activists died in an attempt to break the Israeli blockade of Palestinian-held Gaza in 2010, triggering an international uproar. Ozkose photographed bloodied Israeli commandos who were briefly held by the passengers, and said he was hit and handcuffed by Israelis.
In a speech posted on YouTube, Ozkose also discusses an earlier reporting trip to Afghanistan in which an insurgent leader near him is killed by American bombing, and he is injured in the arm. He recalled saying: `”God, please accept this. God willing, this blood is for you.”`
According to Dunya Bizim, an Islamic website, Ozkose spoke in 2010 at an Istanbul memorial service for Rachel Corrie, an American protester run over by an Israeli army bulldozer in Gaza in 2003. “If I were not a journalist, I’d be a jihadist,” or holy warrior, Ozkose said.
Turkish media reported that Ozkose and Coskun are expected to appear in a Syrian court on charges of illegal trespassing prior to their likely release. Editors at Milat newspaper were apprehensive that Syria might seek concessions, possibly by asking for the handover of wanted Syrians in Turkey in exchange for the journalists.
“We don’t want them to be used in any negotiations. This is against international law,” news coordinator Ibrahim Sarp said in an interview in his office. He said he believed the Syrian chaos masked a deeper conflict pitting Iran against Turkey and its Western allies.
Milat, which roughly translates in Turkish as “birth” or “beginning,” started publishing in October and stands outside the mainstream of big media outlets owned by Turkey’s business conglomerates. Ozkose also worked for its sister magazine, Gercek Hayat, and he and Coskun planned to film a Syrian documentary for Hilal TV, an Islamic channel.
Deniz Ergurel, secretary-general of the Media Association, a non-profit group that promotes media reform in Turkey, described Milat’s readership as particularly interested in political Islam and regional upheavals.
In an interview last year with Kokludegisim, an Islamic magazine, Ozkose said people in the region wanted freedom and that “the future belongs to the Islamic movement” if it seizes the opportunity.
“The Arabic youth don’t mean liberty as in Western-style liberty. They rise up against dictatorship, for a free place where intellectuals can speak the truth without fear. They want to observe their own faith without any difficulty,” he said.
Associated Press writer Emrah Betos contributed to this report.