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Syrian children protest in Idlib over HTS arrest of British aid worker

Crowds in Atmeh called for the release of Tauqir Sharif, detained by Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham since Monday, and for schools run by his aid organisation to reopen
Children carry posters with the image of Tauqir Sharif at a protest in Atmeh on Tuesday (Provided)

Protesters have gathered in the town of Atmeh in Syria's opposition-held Idlib province to call for the release of a locally based British aid worker arrested by Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham.

Tauqir Sharif, who has been based in Atmeh near the Turkish border since 2013, was detained by HTS on Monday evening and remained in custody on Wednesday.

Footage of the protests on Tuesday showed many women and children among dozens chanting and holding banners calling for Sharif to be freed, as they marched through the town.

Some attending said they were recipients of support provided by Sharif's Live Updates from Syria aid organisation, which specialises in offering relief to widows and orphans living in Atmeh's sprawling camp for people displaced by Syria's war. Sharif also runs schools and other projects.

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Sources told MEE that HTS security personnel on Monday also raided the homes of a number of foreign nationals linked to Sharif, confiscating laptops and mobile phones and shutting down Live Updates from Syria offices and projects.

“We want schools to open,” the protesters chanted.

MEE understands that Live Updates from Syria staff have been allowed to return to one of the organisation's schools but it is unclear if it has been allowed to reopen.

“We are showing solidarity with Abu Hossam Britani,” one man said in footage broadcast by the local On the Ground News network, using Sharif's honorific name in Arabic.

“He is one of the biggest supporters in Syria of martyrs and widows. And we want full clarity regarding why Abu Hossam was detained.”

The footage showed the crowd gathering outside closed gates guarded by masked security personnel.

In a post on Facebook, Sharif's wife, Racquell Hayden-Best, who is also from the UK, said that she had not been allowed to pass on a bag of clothes to her husband.

“They think they can stop one man… but he isn't just one person! He is the hundreds of orphans he feeds, he is the hundreds of widows he shelters, he is the hundreds of children he has opened up the doors of education to,” she wrote.

However, Shajul Islam, a British doctor working in Idlib, said in a message posted on Twitter that he had been in indirect contact with Sharif, that clothes had been passed to him and he was bring treated well.

"We are doing everything in our ability to get our brother free... I can assure you that our brother Tox [Sharif] is doing fine. We have arranged for clothes to be sent to him and the local authorities have said they will be releasing something official soon," he said.

Atmeh protest
Children protest outside a school in Atmeh in support of detained British aid worker Tauqir Sharif (Screengrab)

His detention comes amid a crackdown by HTS, the militant alliance that controls most of Idlib, on breakaway factions and other militant groups which announced the creation of a new operations room in the province earlier this month.

On Monday it also detained a former commander, Abu Malek al-Tali, who split from HTS in April in opposition to a Turkish-Russian deal which had halted a Syrian government offensive against Idlib earlier this year.

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Sources told MEE that HTS accuses Sharif of being linked to Abu al-Abd Ashidaa, another militant leader arrested by the group over the creation of the new operations room.

Sharif is one of the most prominent foreign nationals working in Idlib. He broadcasts regularly via his own social media channels and his work has been featured by media organisations including CNN, the BBC and MEE. He told MEE last year that Live Updates from Syria runs more than 40 projects in Idlib and employs about 200 people.

Last year he revealed that he was among a number of UK nationals in Syria to have been stripped of their citizenship by the British government on national security grounds. He denies any links to armed groups or proscribed organisations.

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