ISTANBUL – In television footage of a van's interior, a journalist for a U.S.-funded network sits silently behind a Japanese correspondent who narrates to the camera as they drive to the aftermath of an explosion while covering the civil war in Syria.
Mika Yamamoto, who worked for The Japan Press, was shot dead soon afterward, and family members were escorting her body back to Japan on a flight from Istanbul on Friday. The fleeting images of Bashar Fahmi, a reporter for Al-Hurra network, in Yamamoto's last reporting on Monday, the day she died, offer one of the few clues to his undetermined fate.
Fahmi, a Jordanian citizen of Palestinian origin, and his Turkish cameraman, Cuneyt Unal, are said to have been captured in the city of Aleppo amid the shooting that killed Yamamoto, highlighting the extreme threat to journalists who report firsthand on the Syrian conflict, which by some estimates has killed more than 20,000 people and forced well over 1 million to flee their homes since the uprising against President Bashar Assad began in March 2011.
On Thursday, the father of an American journalist working in Syria said his son hasn't been in contact with his editors or his family in more than a week. Austin Tice, a former Marine, has reported for The Washington Post, McClatchy Newspapers and other media outlets from Syria, where he recently spent time with rebel fighters.
"It's not uncommon for various journalists moving in and about Syria to be out of communication. We're very hopeful that that is what is happening," said his father, Marc Tice.
Fahmi's wife, Arzu Kadumi , said Friday that she last spoke to him by telephone on the day of his disappearance, and that he told her he had crossed into so-called "safe areas" on the Syrian side of the border with Turkey that were under the control of the rebel Free Syrian Army, and had filmed Syrians praying to mark a Muslim holiday. He said he next planned to go to Aleppo, where rebels and government forces have engaged in fierce battles.
"We know he was with the Japanese journalist who was killed, because we saw him in the footage that was taken. Everyone saw it. He was there, we recognized him instantly," Kadumi said. "The only thing we know is that they are alive. Otherwise we don't know anything. We are just waiting."
Kadumi said she had been informed of witness reports that Fahmi was seen alive. Murat Can, a journalist with Cihan News Agency who has investigated the case, said he was told by "local correspondents" in the border area that Fahmi was injured in the shoulder, and that he and Unal had been captured by pro-government militiamen known as "shabiha."
Syrian rebels also said the two men were captured. The Turkish Foreign Ministry is investigating and in contact with their families.
Earlier this year, Iran, an ally of Syria, played a role in securing the release of two Turkish journalists who were held for two months by pro-government forces in Syria. Relations between Syria and Turkey, which backs the Syrian opposition's bid to oust Assad, have deteriorated further since then. Ties between Jordan and Syria are also tense, though The Jordan Times quoted a Jordanian government spokesman as saying Jordan was in contact with Syrian authorities in its efforts to determine Fahmi's location.
Yamamoto's employer, The Japan Press, is an independent TV news provider that specializes in conflict zone coverage. She was traveling with colleague Kazutaka Sato, who filmed her as they drove in a rebel convoy.
"We heard there was an explosion and some casualties," Yamamoto says in the footage. "We are now heading toward that area to cover the story."
Fahmi appears calm behind her, glancing around. Yamamoto was killed after getting out of the vehicle.
Jasper Mortimer, a Turkey-based correspondent for France 24 television who reported inside Syria this month, said Fahmi, a father of two, was cautious in his work. He described how journalists in rebel-held areas rely on Free Syrian Army escorts who try to keep them safe, and that the rebels with the Japanese team and the Al-Hurra reporters apparently misjudged the immediacy of the threat.
"He didn't want to be in the front line, with bullets whizzing, and bombs landing, that sort of thing," Mortimer said of Fahmi.
Associated Press writer Suzan Fraser contributed from Ankara, Turkey.