BEIRUT (AP) — Two Spanish journalists were freed after being held captive for six months in Syria by a rogue al-Qaida group, the newspaper for which one of the men worked said Sunday.
El Mundo said reporter Javier Espinosa and photographer Ricardo Garcia Vilanova made contact Saturday evening from Turkey, where there were in the care of the military. They were expected in Spain on Sunday.
It was not clear whether they escaped or were let go by the extremist Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, which abducted them near a rebel-held province in eastern Syria in September.
Syria remains the most dangerous conflict in the world for reporters, partially because of the risk of kidnapping by pro-government forces or rebels. The release of the two Spanish correspondents leaves at least another nine foreign correspondents missing in Syria as well as 10 Syrian reporters.
Activists, who do much of the on-the-ground reporting in Syria, are also at risk. The press rights group Reporters without Borders says around 20 are held by the Islamic State, while an unknown number are held by the government.
The rise of extremist Sunni groups, especially the Islamic State, has added extra dangers for reporters and activists seeking to cover the three-year uprising. The Islamic State took the two captive six months ago at a checkpoint in the town of Tal Abyad in the eastern province of Raqqa, where they are the dominant faction.
Press freedom groups say the Islamic State is also believed responsible for the kidnapping and deaths of moderate religious figures, humanitarian workers, human rights defenders and others since the spring, when group muscled into northern and central Syria.
It has also clashed with other rebel groups, including the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front, who consider the Islamic State's radicalism to be a liability in the war against President Bashar Assad.
A militant website that carries al-Qaida statements issued a plea to the Islamic State in December to release Espinosa and Vilanova.
The Hanein Network described them as "men who risked their lives to report the truth."
Since issuing the call to release them, the Hanein Network kept an appeal poster visible on their front webpage.
The photograph shows the two men in a soft-focus background. A masked militant of the Islamic State stands in the foreground, holding two cats, in an apparent appeal to the group's sentimental side.
Other rebel groups have since chased the Islamic State away from much of northern Syria, but they still hold sway in Raqqa.
Another Spanish reporter who was seized by the Islamic State in September, Marc Marginedas, was released earlier this month.
The release of three Spanish reporters held by Islamic State militants where others have simply disappeared led Spain's El Mundo newspaper to comment, "One reporter said that for three Spanish reporters to return safe and sound we needed not one, but three winning lottery tickets."
"There are those who believe in luck, but others in miracles," the newspaper said.
Espinosa was widely respected as a brave correspondent. He was wounded in February 2012 in a shelling barrage by Syrian government forces on the central city of Homs that killed a French photojournalist, Remi Ochlik and an American reporter working for a British newspaper, Marie Colvin. His live was saved by a wall that blocked the worst of the shrapnel.
Following news of Espinosa's release, his partner, Monica Garcia Prieto, also a Spanish reporter, sent a Twitter message in Spanish early Sunday describing her feelings thusly:
With reporting by Maamoun Yousssef in Cairo.