Syria rebel group denies releasing Afghan prisoners

Pro-rebel outlets reported Tuesday that the Amoud Houran Division had transferred four Afghan detainees to an international organization, however the rebel group released a video refuting the claim.

Aamoud Houran Division shows four Afghans it denies it had released. (YouTube)

BEIRUT – A rebel group in southern Syria has denied reports it transferred several captured Afghan mercenaries to an international organization after the regime rejected a prisoner swap.


“This is a false claim that is devoid of truth,” a spokesperson for the Amoud Houran Division based in Daraa’s Busr al-Harir said in a video released late Tuesday.


Earlier that day, All4Syria reported  that the Amoud Houran Division had delivered the four Afghan prisoners to an “international organization” but did not name the institution in question.


“The Afghan prisoners who were in the custody of division were handed over secretly to the organization via Jordan,” an anonymous source told the outlet.


“This came after Iran and regime leadership refused to exchange the prisoners for the release of detained women and children from Houran, specifically residents of Busr al-Harir, from Bashar al-Assad’s prisons.”


All4Syria identified the four Afghans as 42-year-old Sakhi Mohammad Hussein al-Omar, 40-year-old Haidar Ali Akbar Mohammedi and 17-year-old Ayatollah Moussa Husseini—all from the city of Mazar-i-Sharif—as well as 18-year old Abbas Yaacoub Ali Wafaei, who hails from Kabul.


The Amoud Houran Division refuted the claim in the video, showing all four of the prisoners still locked up in the rebel group’s central prison department.


The Afghans—who were captured during a failed regime offensive on Busr al-Hariri in April 2015—all identified themselves in the video, while the spokesperson for the rebel group announced on camera that the video was being filmed on Tuesday, February 23, 2016. 


The rebel group stressed in the video that it was treating the prisoners well, with the spokesperson asking the Afghans, "Has anyone done wrong and beat you up?"


"No, they haven't. The guys act responsibly. The FSA is good," one of the prisoners, Haidar Mohammedi, answered.


"There is no problem, everything is good," Mohammedi added when asked about food and clothing in the prison. 


All of the detainees' statements were made while in captivity and do not necessarily reflect their true views. Their statements may have been made under duress, direct or indirect.


The four Afghan prisoners were first publicly unveiled in two videos released by the Aamoud Houran Division in late April 2015 after they were captured in fighting around Busr al-Harir. 


The first video shows the prisoners in a disheveled and disoriented state shortly after their capture. Two of the younger men bore the signs of an apparent beating, with dried blood caking their faces.


Afghan captives. (YouTube/Aamoud Houran Division) 


Another video released days later shows the prisoners in a better condition, dressed in coats while their captors offer them cigarettes and food.


Afghan captives. (YouTube/Aamoud Houran Division) 


Tehran has recruited thousands of Persian-speaking Hazara Afghans refugees living in Iran to fight in the Fatemiyoun Brigade, which was formed in late 2014 and is overseen by officers in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).


“Iran has urged the Afghans to defend Shia sacred sites and offered financial incentives and legal residence in Iran to encourage them to join pro-Syrian government militias,” Human Rights Watch said in a January 2016 report condemning Tehran for recruiting impoverished Hazara Afghans.


Afghans have been thrown into combat at the side of regime forces across Syria, with a large number of them dying in the Aleppo and Daraa provinces.


The Persian-speaking fighters taken prisoner in battle usually languish in rebel captivity. For example, German magazine Der Spiegel reported in May 2015 that insurgent commanders had failed to reach a deal to swap Afghan prisoners for rebel captives.


One rebel officer told Der Spiegel’s Christopher Reuter that Colonel Suheil al-Hassan—the leader of the Syrian army’s crack Tiger Forces—considered the Afghans to be disposable.


“Do what you want with them. You can kill them, they’re just mercenaries. We can send you thousands of them,” the top Syrian army official reportedly told a commander trying to negotiate an exchange involving six Afghans.


Another rebel commander told Der Spiegel that they had attempted to contact the International Committee for the Red Cross regarding two Afghan prisoners, but received no answer.​


NOW’s English news desk editor Albin Szakola (@AlbinSzakola) wrote this report. Ullin Hope (@UllinHope) translated the Arabic-language source material.

Aamoud Houran Division shows four Afghans it denies it had released. (YouTube)

The Afghan prisoners who were in the custody of division were handed over secretly to the organization via Jordan.