A Turkish journalist who was held captive in Syria for two months said Monday that he was intensely interrogated while blindfolded by Syrian authorities who suspected he was a spy and wondered why his government was trying so hard to release him.
Adem Özköse, a writer for Turkey's Milat newspaper, also told The Associated Press in an interview that his Syrian captors heaped insults on Turkish leaders, saying they were working for the Americans and had betrayed Syria.
"'You're working for the Americans,'" Özköse quoted his captors as saying. "'You abandoned us.'"
Özköse and a colleague, cameraman Hamit Coşkun, flew home to Turkey this weekend after Iran, an ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad, helped to secure their release. Turkey, a NATO member that once had warm ties with Syria, has since closed its embassy and demands, along with its Western and Arab allies, that Assad resign because of his bloody crackdown on the opposition.
The two journalists were reported missing in early March in the northern province of Idlib, and were then taken to a jail in Damascus. Initially, Özköse said, they were held by a militia that put guns to their heads, and then three armored vehicles picked them up for transfer in a helicopter to Damascus under the guard of regular security forces.
He said an Iranian official came to the jail and told them that they would be freed on the following day. On Saturday, jail officials took the journalists to the airport and handed them over to Iranian authorities, and they boarded a commercial flight to Tehran. From there, they flew back to Turkey on a plane dispatched by the Turkish government.
An official at the Iranian embassy in Ankara, the Turkish capital, confirmed that Iran was a "facilitator and moderator" for the release of Özköse and Coşkun, and said two Iranian "visitors" who had been kidnapped in Syria were "recently" released by Syrian opposition groups. But the official insisted the two incidents were not related. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
The official said there were several Iranians, including engineers working on Iranian projects and tourists, still held captive by Syrian opposition groups and that Iran was working for their release.
Özköse spoke to the AP at the office of Milat, a new newspaper with an Islamic background. The 33-year-old journalist was on board a Turkish aid boat bound for Gaza that was the target of a deadly raid by Israeli commandos in 2010, and he was held with other passengers in Israeli detention until they were deported.
In the interview, Özköse described the Israeli detention center as "five-star" in comparison to the Syrian jail, where he slept on a concrete floor, saw naked prisoners and sometimes heard people crying out in anguish.
Turkey pressed Iran, another regional power and traditional rival, for help in releasing the two Turks, and IHH, an Islamic aid group that had operated the boat that was raided by Israel, moved aggressively to assist in the talks. In the past, Özköse, who is deeply devout, has described insurgents he knew during a reporting trip to Afghanistan, as well as Palestinian militants in Gaza, as friends.
"'Why does Turkey care so much about you? Who are you? Are you from Turkish intelligence?'" he quoted Syrian guards as asking. In one of the interrogations, he said: "If you are going to kill me, don't kill me as an intelligence officer, kill me as a journalist."
He said the Syrian militia and guards displayed a keen knowledge of "Valley of the Wolves," a Turkish television drama that depicts Israeli soldiers committing atrocities, and features fictional Turkish hero Polat Alemdar, who might be described as a cross between James Bond and Rambo.
"They said, 'Let's see if Polat Alemdar will come and save you," the captors constantly joked, according to Özköse. "You have only one Polat, we have thousands."
Özköse has three children, all of whom were born in Damascus, where his family lived for several years.
"After tomorrow, I'll shut off my phone," he said. "I want to play with my children. I want to spend time with my family. And I want to walk for hours. This was my dream, when I was in jail."