Gang abducted British hostage David Haines close to border
The British aid worker threatened with beheading by Isis was kidnapped by professional gunmen who targeted the vehicle in which he was travelling in the expectation of obtaining Western hostages, a witness has revealed.
A Syrian translator for the charity employing David Haines described the moment in March last year when Isis fighters in two cars pounced to detain the Briton and an Italian colleague in Syria.
The incident happened when the men were agonisingly close to safety as they travelled the final few miles to the Turkish border.
The details of how the abduction of Mr Haines (44) took place are only emerging after his captivity was kept secret for 19 months.
His kidnapping was made public in horrifying circumstances on Tuesday when he appeared in a video posted by Isis showing a jihadist with a London accent decapitating American journalist Steven Sotloff and then warning that the Briton would be next.
Prime Minister David Cameron yesterday reiterated that Britain would not pay a ransom and condemned countries that have handed over millions of pounds in return for kidnapped citizens.
Aid worker Mr Haines, who was in Syria for the Paris-based Agency for Technical Cooperation and Development (ACTED), was in the final hours of a three-day tour to assess locations for new refugee camps in the north of the country when he was abducted with Federico Motka.
Their Syrian translator, who asked not be named, said they were driving back via Aleppo towards the Turkish border from the Atmeh refugee camp and had taken a shorter route along a farm road when gunmen appeared.
He said: "Two very fast cars came up behind – one overtook and the other stayed behind. They shouted at us to get out of the car in Arabic. They were wearing masks and were professional.
"They knew that two of us were Syrians and they knew who else was in the car. One put a gun to my head and threatened me. They put (Mr Haines and Mr Motka) in the boot of their car and shot out the tyres of our car."
The translator said the kidnapping took place "in seconds" and the gunmen included at least one foreigner who appeared to be of African origin. He added: "No one thought that would happen close to the border. We were looking forward to getting back to Turkey."
The translator praised Mr Haines, a father-of-two born in East Yorkshire and raised in Perthshire, for his warmth and humanity towards refugees. He said: "I remember he was really worried for the people because they didn't have toilets. He stopped by every child and made a joke with them. He was always smiling and listening to the refugees. Those three days, I was with the best guy in aid work."
The apparently pre-planned nature of the abduction served to underline remarks by Mr Cameron, who said ransom payments had encouraged further kidnappings by jihadists looking for funds.
Speaking at the Nato conference in Wales, he added: "Countries that have allowed ransoms to be paid – that has ended up with terrorist groups, including this group, having tens of millions of dollars that they can spend on kidnapping other hostages, on preparing terrorist plots."
Germany, France and Spain have reportedly paid ransoms to obtain freedom for their citizens.
Italian media said yesterday that the release of Mr Motka, who was freed in May after sharing a cell with Mr Haines, had been secured after Rome authorised the handing over of £4.75m.
Following the release of this week's video, the Foreign Office asked for the media not to identify Mr Haines, but his name and details of his career have been widely circulated on the internet.
The amount of information about the Briton now available is such that no purpose is served by continuing to withhold his name.
Mr Haines has been based in recent years near Zagreb in Croatia, where he met his second wife, Dragana, and helped run a kitchen supplies business. He travelled to the former Yugoslavia in 1999 and spent five years working for a German charity, helping to rehouse refugees from the civil war.
Croatian newspaper Jutarnji List reported last night that the met Dragana while she was working as a translator for the charity. The couple married in 2010 and have a four-year-old daughter.
Members of Mr Haines' family have gathered in Ayr, home to his elderly parents. Friends said there had been no contact with the aid worker since his capture.
In a tweet responding to a survey asking what she most wanted, Mr Haines' daughter by his first marriage wrote last year: "For my daddy to come home."