HERMEL, Lebanon: Conflicting reports emerged Tuesday regarding the fate of Qatari mediation efforts with the Syrian opposition to secure the release of 13 nuns that have been held by Syrian rebels in a town near the border with Lebanon since early December.
While some media reports said the Gulf country had suspended its mediation attempts with the rebels, a security source in Arsal said a Qatari delegation had visited the Bekaa Valley town less than two weeks ago to meet with its mayor, Ali Hujeiri, and seek his help to release the nuns.
There is effectively no policing of the border on the road between Arsal, a northeastern Lebanese town bordering Syria’s Qalamoun region, and the Syrian town of Yabroud, where the nuns are reportedly staying or being kept in the home of a Christian family.
The security source said that in Yabroud, the Qatari delegation met with representatives of those holding the nuns, who demanded, among other things, the release of a number of Islamists held in Lebanon.
The Greek Orthodox nuns disappeared from their convent in the historic Syrian town of Maaloula in December. It remains unclear whether they were kidnapped by the Syrian rebels or moved for their own safety after the town came under attack, but they have now been missing for a month.
In a video aired on Al-Jazeera channel last month, the nuns said fierce shelling and bombardment had forced them to depart their Maaloula convent. The nuns, who insisted they had been moved for their own safety, appeared to be in good health in the video.
A few days after they disappeared, the rebels responsible demanded the release of 1,000 Syrian women held in the regime’s prisons and the lifting of the army’s siege of eastern Ghouta, east of Damascus, in exchange for the nuns’ freedom.
Hujeiri told The Daily Star Monday that he was “cooperating with other parties to help with the release of the nuns,” adding that he had received a Qatari delegation earlier this month at his residence in Arsal to discuss the case.
He did not elaborate, saying he did not want to jeopardize ongoing efforts to release the women.
He also said he had recently dispatched his own delegation to Syria to negotiate with the rebels.
Hujeiri has strong links to the Syrian opposition, while Arsal is also known for its fervent support of the rebels. It is already hosting more than 40,000 refugees, many of whom have fled the fighting in Qalamoun.
The town has also become a haven for Syrian fighters criss-crossing between the two countries via the porous border.
Ibrahim has also been in contact with Qatari officials as part of efforts to secure the release of the nuns and the two bishops.
Separately, 14 rockets from Syria hit Arsal Tuesday, causing material damage, a Lebanese security source told The Daily Star.
The missiles were fired by a rocket launcher in the Syrian border town of Qusair and landed between Marj Arsal and Khirbit Daoud, mainly in agricultural areas, the source added.
Qusair, where several Lebanese Shiite families reside, was a major battleground between Hezbollah-backed regime forces and rebel groups last year, and recent reports suggest Syrian rebels are attempting to regain control of the area.
Arsal has also been the target of rocket attacks on several occasions.