HERMEL, Lebanon: The mayor of Arsal, a northeastern Lebanese town bordering Syria’s Qalamoun, said Monday is helping with mediation efforts between Qatar and the Syrian opposition to help secure the release of 13 nuns seized by a rebel group.
The head of Arsal Municipality Ali Hujeiri told The Daily Star he is “cooperating with other parties in order to help with the release of the nuns.”
Hujeiri said he received a Qatari delegation earlier this month at his residence in Arsal to discuss the case of the nuns in Syria and that he had recently dispatched his own delegation to Syria to negotiate with the opposition.
Thirteen nuns were taken by Syrian rebels from their convent in the historic Syrian town of Maaloula in December. The rebels are believed to have taken the women to the nearby town of Yabroud, where they are reportedly staying in the home of a Christian family.
In a video aired on Al-Jazeera, the Orthodox nuns said fierce shelling and bombardment had forced them to depart their convent in Maaloula.
Hujeiri, who has strong ties with opposition figures, declined to elaborate further on his activities in relation to the case, fearing his remarks might harm the ongoing efforts to secure the nuns’ release.
Arsal is known for its fervent support of the Syrian opposition and has so far hosted thousands of refugee families who have fled the fighting in nearby Qalamoun.
The town has also become a haven for Syrian fighters crisscrossing between the two countries via the porous border.
A source in the town said Arsal was considered the only safe place connecting Syria’s Qalamoun to Lebanon.
Arsal's mayor has become a notorious figure in the country. He is wanted by Lebanese authorities for involvement in the killing of two soldiers in the town last year and has overseen deals to swap captives between Arsal and Shiite residents in nearby villages.
Lebanon’s Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, the head of General Security, has been tasked with the case of the nuns after his successful efforts last year at securing the release of nine Shiite Lebanese men who were kidnapped in Syria by a rebel group.
Ibrahim is in contact with Qatari officials as part of efforts to secure the release of the 13 nuns.
Speaking to An-Nahar newspaper Monday, Ibrahim said he met a Qatari delegation to discuss the case, adding that General Security officers have met with representatives of the kidnappers in the presence of the Qatari officials.
Ibrahim also said that the negotiations were on the right track.
Ibrahim and Qatar have also said they are working on the release of two Syrian bishops who are also being held captive in Syria.