Boyfriend: My bid to free Kayla

Published: Monday 16th February 2015 by The News Editor

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The Syrian boyfriend of US hostage Kayla Mueller who died in the hands of Islamic State (IS) terrorists has said she remained selfless even while she was held captive.

Omar Alkhani said he returned to Syria months after he and Ms Mueller, 26, from Prescott, Arizona, were captured at gunpoint outside a hospital, to try to secure her release by posing as her husband.

But when he and aid worker Ms Mueller came face to face while she was in a detention cell in Syria, she denied being his wife.

Had she told her captors she was married to Mr Alkhani, she might have been freed from the hands of the IS militants, he said.

The US government and Ms Mueller’s family confirmed her death last week. Since then, hundreds of people have gathered to honour her in her home town and in Flagstaff, where she attended Northern Arizona University. IS claims she was killed in a Jordanian air strike.

Mr Alkhani had persuaded a string of people to let him plead for her release, but he left the room empty-handed and said he was thrown into another cell. He said he saw her face for just a few seconds when guards uncovered it to show it was Ms Mueller.

The guards told Ms Mueller that Mr Alkhani would not be harmed if she told the truth, so she apparently did to save him, rather than take the slim chance to save herself, he said.

“Since she’s American, they would not let her go anyway. No sense to stay here, both of us,” Mr Alkhani said. “Maybe she wanted to save me. Maybe she didn’t know I came back to save her.”

Mr Alkhani spoke from Turkey in one of his first interviews, telling how he met Ms Mueller in 2010 and the last time he saw her in 2013 as a prisoner of IS.

Mueller and Mr Alkhani were taken hostage in August 2013 after leaving a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Aleppo, Syria, where he was hired to fix the internet connection.

Ms Mueller had begged him to let her tag along so she could see the suffering first hand and help, despite the dangers of travelling into the war-torn region. He said he agreed reluctantly.

“We argued about it,” he said. “In the end, I was afraid if she didn’t go with me, she would go with someone else.”

Ms Mueller took advantage of an unexpected overnight stay at the hospital when the repairs took longer than expected and asked Syrian women about how they managed daily life. During what should have been a 10-minute trip to the bus station the next day, Ms Mueller, Mr Alkhani, the taxi driver and a fourth person were ambushed at gunpoint and threatened with death.

Ms Mueller remained a hostage, while Mr Alkhani was released a couple of months later after being beaten and interrogated about his work as a photographer, his religion and his relationship to Ms Mueller, he said.

Against the advice of his friends, Mr Alkhani said, he returned to Syria from Turkey later in 2013 to try to get back the woman he met three years earlier in Cairo, Egypt, after she responded to an advertisement he posted to house international visitors.

Ms Mueller stayed less than a week in Cairo, but Mr Alkhani said they quickly bonded and kept in touch through the internet and travelled together, discussing ways they could change the world. They became a couple and he said he promised her that he would always look out for her.

While she was in France learning the country’s language to go to north Africa, Ms Mueller encouraged Mr Alkhani to follow his dream of helping fellow Syrians. She eventually joined him in Turkey near the Syrian border.

Mr Alkhani said he spoke to her often about Syria, where bloodshed has gripped the country under the regime of embattled President Bashar Assad, and sent her recordings, photographs and other information that she used for her blog.

Nearly half of Syria’s population has been displaced, and some 200,000 people have died in the fighting.

“She wanted everyone to use their freedom to help us get freedom,” he said.

When they were captured together and detained, Mr Alkhani said he at least had some reassurance she was alive. He would cough or say something to make sure his voice was heard, and she would sometimes cough in return. Other times, he or his cell-mates would peer under the door and see the sandals she was wearing, he said.

Mr Alkhani said he was released after about 20 days, but was told to forget about Ms Mueller and his camera equipment.

He said he has been in touch with Ms Mueller’s family and held out hope as they did during her 18 months of captivity that she was alive. He convinced himself that the militants would release her, realising she was only in Syria to help people.

“I didn’t realise one day I will receive this call from somebody telling me, ‘I am sorry’,” he said.

Published: Monday 16th February 2015 by The News Editor

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