Saturday 20 December 2014

Militants release 13 nuns in trade-off

Diaa Hadid Beirut

Published 11/03/2014 | 02:30

Head of Mar Thecla monastery in Maloula Mother Plagia Sayyaf (L), who was freed with others after being held by rebels for over three months, attends with nuns a prayer of thanks after their release at the Holy Cross Church, in Damascus March 10, 2014. About a dozen nuns held by rebels in Syria for more than three months were released on Sunday and arrived back in Syria after traveling through Lebanon, officials and witnesses said. Witnesses at the Syrian border with Lebanon said the nuns arrived at the crossing early on Monday and headed toward Damascus in a minibus. REUTERS/Khaled al-Hariri (SYRIA - Tags: POLITICS RELIGION CONFLICT CIVIL UNREST)
Head of Mar Thecla monastery in Maloula Mother Plagia Sayyaf (L), who was freed with others after being held by rebels for over three months, attends with nuns a prayer of thanks after their release at the Holy Cross Church

Syrian militants have released a group of Greek Orthodox nuns in exchange for dozens of women held in government prisons – a rare deal between Damascus and al-Qa'ida-linked rebels that was mediated by Qatari and Lebanese officials.

The dramatic scene of the nuns being freed from vehicles in the dead of night along the Lebanese-Syrian border, bidding their captors a surprisingly friendly farewell, ended the women's three-month ordeal.

The nuns were captured as opposition fighters overran a Christian village and were held in a border town. They were released yesterday as government-backed forces battled their way into the strategic border town.

MEDIATION

It provided an unusual example of regional actors cooperating to reach across the Syrian civil war's sectarian and ideological fault lines, which have sharply split the Middle East.

The energy-rich Gulf nation of Qatar, a chief backer of the rebels fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad, was involved in the mediation.

The 13 women said they were treated well by their captors, members of the al-Qa'ida-affiliated Nusra Front. In a video released by the militant group yesterday, they appeared healthy save for one elderly nun who was carried by a masked gunman to a waiting vehicle.

The video posted on the internet showed the nuns and their captors chatting affectionately as they bid each other farewell.

An off-camera rebel voice told the nuns that God will reward them for their suffering. "May God reward every person who sought to resolve this problem," replied one nun.

Opposition activists said the nuns had been held in a villa in Yabroud, a strategic Syrian town near the border with Lebanon. (© AP)

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