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Brussels suspect was Syria jihadist, ex-hostage says

French journalist Nicolas Hénin (right) on Saturday identified Mehdi Nemmouche (left), a French citizen accused of fatally shooting four people at the Jewish Museum in Brussels, as one of his captors while he was held by jihadists in Syria.

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Nemmouche is believed to have spent more than a year in Syria fighting alongside Islamist militants before the Brussels shooting. He may have been one of the guards holding four French journalists – Hénin as well as Didier François, Edouard Elias and Pierre Torres – who were taken hostage by militants from the Islamic State (IS) group in June 2013.

Since their release on April 20 this year, the four freed journalists have been interviewed numerous times about their ordeal by France’s DGSI intelligence service, French daily Le Monde reported Saturday. While some of former hostages have said only that “it was possible” that Nemmouche was among their captors, others, including Hénin, were more certain.

“When Nemmouche wasn’t singing, he was torturing [people],” Hénin said in an interview to be published in Le Point, the weekly magazine for which he works, on September 11. “He was a member of a small French group whose arrival terrorised the fifty Syrian prisoners being held in nearby cells. Every evening, the blows would begin to rain down in the cell where I myself had been interrogated. The torture lasted all night until the morning prayer. The prisoners’ screams were sometimes met with yelling in French.”

Henin's layer, Marie-Laure Ingouf, told AFP that Nemmouche "was one of his jailers".

"All the hostages confirm this. They lived alongside him for several months," she said.

A police source told AFP that the freed hostages had recognised Nemmouche from photographs following his arrest.

Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said that French intelligence services had transferred information to the judiciary "that suggest [Nemmouche] may have been the jailer of our hostages".

Suspicions that Nemmouche was among the militants who held Hénin and his colleagues hostage was initially kept secret in order to protect those still in captivity, according to an article published Saturday on Le Point’s website.

Hénin was held for a time with American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, both of whom were beheaded by IS militants in recent weeks.

Speaking to FRANCE 24 in April shortly after his release, Hénin said that his jihadist jailers kept moving him between different detention facilities across Syria.

“It was complicated. I’ve been detained in a dozen locations, in different sorts of jails. Most of the time I was with other people…Sometimes we had to travel for several days.”

Hénin said that the scariest moment in his 10-month ordeal was when he tried to escape, three days after his abduction on June 22, 2013, in Raqqa, an IS militant stronghold in Syria.

“That was dangerous. I escaped for one whole night before being caught again by my kidnappers,” he said.

Nemmouche, 29, was extradited from France to Belgium in July, where he has since been charged with committing “murder in a terrorist context” for the Brussels shooting.

The attack left an Israeli couple, a Frenchwoman and a Belgian man dead, and underscored fears of terrorist attacks launched by European jihadists returning from Syria.

French authorities say that some 900 French nationals are believed to be fighting alongside jihadists in Syria. Several dozen have been killed.

A Frenchman of Algerian descent, Nemmouche was arrested for the Brussels shooting in the southern French city of Marseille on May 30. He has been sentenced seven times previously in France, including for armed robbery, and has spent seven years in jail.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and AP)

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