The kidnappers of an 8-year-old Syrian boy said his family have until Wednesday to pay a ransom of $200,000 or they will cut his fingers off, as Syrian authorities work to find the child who was abducted in November.
Fawwaz Al Qutayfan left for school in Syria's government-held southern city of Deraa on November 2 and never came home.
“They say there were two motorcycles — one with a masked man and a woman who had her face covered, and another with two masked men,” Mesab Al Qutayfan, the boy's uncle, told local media.
“The masked woman pointed Fawwaz out clearly to the people with her,” he says.
The family were then contacted through WhatsApp and the encrypted messaging service Telegram with demands for cash and instructions.
When the family asked for proof of life, the person they were speaking to replied: “I will send you a video of his severed finger … Otherwise, I don't have anything [to send]."
The family now say the kidnappers have given them until Wednesday to hand over $200,000 or they will cut the boy's fingers off.
Brig Gen Dirar Al Dandal, who heads the local police force, confirmed that the kidnappers had set the deadline in an interview with Sham FM but insisted authorities were still trying to find Fawwaz.
He said the case is being investigated by the Interior Ministry but “difficulties lie with the fact that the number contacting the family is not Syrian".
“We have leads that will, hopefully, bring us positive results,” the official said.
Fawwaz's plight garnered international attention after his abductors released a video of him wearing nothing but his underwear as he plead with his kidnappers to stop beating him.
People have taken to Twitter and other social media sites using the hashtag #SaveFawazAlQatifan to urge authorities to find the boy.
The boy's father thanked people for their support in a video shared online on Sunday and said that his tribe had gathered “most” of the money to bring Fawwaz, his only son, home.
While authorities say they are doing all they can, an analyst with the Centre for Operational Analysis and Research (COAR) told The National that the kidnapping was far from an isolated case and that the local security situation was complicating efforts.
Gangs “specialising” in abductions have become rampant says Muhanad Al Rish, who added that while the people behind the kidnapping may not have been identified, they are “generally known”.
“This phenomenon rose as security forces in Deraa became increasingly fragmented and armed militias loyal to various parties increased in number, while more ISIS cells infiltrated the area,” Mr Al Rish said.
He added that the fragile security situation is one of the reasons for the lack of progress in finding the boy after three months.
Information on how prevalent the abduction of children is in southern Syria is hard to come by, but independent NGO Syrians for Truth and Justice say that it documented at least 31 child kidnappings in the first eight months of 2020.
“Since the beginning of 2020, there has been an acute rise in kidnappings in the province of Deraa, especially of children, while playing outdoors or on their way to school or the marketplace,” it said in a report published the same year.
The report said that in most cases the families opted to pay a ransom rather than leave the matter to the authorities.
Deraa, where the 2011 uprising against Bashar Al Assad began, was recaptured by pro-government forces in 2018 but has remained restive.
Government forces rarely enter parts of the town and Russian military police have tried to negotiate security co-operation with local committees.
In July last year, the de-escalation agreement between the Russian-backed regime and opposition forces collapsed after pro-Assad troops mobilised in Deraa Al Balad, the birthplace of the Syrian revolution.
It led to weeks of clashes between rebels and government forces before the fighters surrendered to Russian soldiers following a deal.