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Tuesday 20 March 2018

Syria's al-Qaida branch releases captive Lebanese soldiers

A relative of freed soldiers and policemen dances in downtown Beirut, Lebanon (AP)
A relative of freed soldiers and policemen dances in downtown Beirut, Lebanon (AP)
The Nusra Front released 16 soldiers near the Syrian border town of Arsal

Syria's al-Qaida branch has released a group of Lebanese troops held captive for over a year as part of a Qatar-brokered swap that involved Lebanon setting free at least 11 prisoners wanted by the militants.

"My happiness is beyond description," said a Lebanese policeman, one of the 16 released on Tuesday, shortly after he was brought to the point where the exchange took place on the edge of Arsal.

In Beirut, families and friends of the abducted soldiers and policemen broke into a dance and cheered as news of the released reached them.

Earlier in the day, masked Nusra Front fighters brought the captive troops in three pick-up trucks to a meeting point on the edge of the town, to be handed over to Lebanese authorities who were waiting along with Red Cross vehicles. The government had transported its 11 prisoners to the exchange point.

Militants waving black al-Qaida flags fanned out across the area, with several who took positions on the roof of a building overlooking the location. The deal went ahead after trucks carrying humanitarian aid entered Arsal as part of the deal.

Tuesday's exchange comes amid heightened diplomatic activity to end Syria's civil war, now in its fifth year. It reflects an attempt by the group to portray itself as a more moderate player.

Suleiman Dirani, one of those held captive, thanked "our brothers" from the Nusra Front for what he said was good treatment. "We are leaving here as we came, we are all in good health," he said.

At least 11 prisoners in Lebanese jails, including five women, were released as part of the deal, according to a senior Lebanese security official.

The group included Saja al-Dulaimi, the 26-year-old former wife of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, said the official. Ms al-Dulaimi was detained in Lebanon last year after she crossed into the country illegally with her current husband using forged identity cards.

Al-Jazeera said 13 prisoners were handed over to Nusra Front. It was not immediately clear whether that number included two prisoners held by the Syrian government. Local media had reported the deal may include prisoners held in Syria.

Ms al-Dulaimi, who appeared in Lebanese court for a hearing last month, was seen along with her four children at the meeting point on Tuesday.

"They say that I was the wife of al-Baghdadi. I don't know, we have been divorced for six or seven years," she told Al-Jazeera upon her arrival to the area controlled by the Nusra Front.

Asked what she plans to do after her release, Ms al-Dulaimi, who had her face covered with a face veil, said she wanted to go live in Turkey.

She spoke from inside an SUV, holding in her arms her four-month-old son Youssef, who was born while she was in jail. Al-Baghdadi's biological daughter, Hajar, seven, was also in the car, sitting next to her mother.

The Nusra Front and the Islamic State group abducted 29 soldiers and policemen in Arsal last year when they briefly overran the town. Four have been killed in captivity while the Islamic State group has refused to negotiate on the nine captives it holds.

Press Association

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