BEIRUT: Thirteen nuns were freed late Sunday by Syrian rebels in exchange for the release by Damascus of more than 150 Syrian women prisoners following Lebanese and Qatari mediation, officials said, putting an end to an ordeal that lasted more than three months and won world sympathy.
Officers from Lebanon’s General Security received the nuns on the outskirts of the Lebanese northeastern town of Arsal.
“Congratulations. The nuns are now in the custody of General Security and are on their way to Jdaidet Yabouss,” General Security chief Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim told reporters late Sunday at the VIP Lounge in Jdaidet Yabouss, a Syrian border post near the frontier with Lebanon. Sitting next to him was Hussein Makhlouf, the governor of rural Damascus.
Upon her arrival at the Jdaidet Yabouss crossing after a journey that took nine hours, Mother Therese, one of the released nuns, thanked God and all those who negotiated their release for their safety before embracing Ibrahim.
One of the nuns was being carried by security personnel as she seemed too weak to walk on her own.
Another nun, Mother Agiah, said their captors had treated them well. “They were very kind and sweet,” she said. “They treated us well.”
Escorted by Lebanese Army vehicles, the convoy of cars carrying the 13 nuns and their three housemaids drove beneath torrential rains from Arsal to Jdaidet Yabouss in the early hours of Monday.
Qatari Foreign Minister Khaled al-Atiyeh said the Qatari mediation succeeded in securing the freedom of the 13 Greek Orthodox nuns and their three helpers in exchange for the release of 153 Syrian women held in regime prisons.
Ibrahim, who had been mediating with Syrian and Qatari officials to secure the nuns’ release, said the kidnappers tried at the last minute to scuttle the deal to free the nuns in a bid to achieve more gains.
He denied that any ransom was paid to the kidnappers. “There was no deal. No money was paid in exchange for the release of the nuns. It is a comprehensive operation and obstacles are normal,” Ibrahim said.
Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri welcomed the release of the nuns and their return to their church and families.
“All kidnappings and detentions contradict the most basic human rights and are condemned, regardless of the pretexts and justifications that the kidnappers hide behind,” he said in a statement released by his office.
He voiced hoped that this step would be a prelude to the release of Aleppo’s Greek Orthodox Archbishop Paul Yazigi and Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Yohanna Ibrahim, who were abducted by rebels in April.
Ibrahim said Qatar was “a mediator” and supported the attempts to secure the release of the nuns. He added that the Syrian government had met a demand of the rebels by releasing more than 150 Syrian women held in prisons.
“A tug-of-war [on the part of the kidnappers] has delayed the release ... The kidnappers tried at the last minute to renege on the agreement and achieve more gains,” he said.
Ibrahim refused to give details of the deal reached with the kidnappers. “What we have committed to will be implemented,” he said.
The nuns, who were kidnapped from their monastery in the historic town of Maaloula in Syria on Dec. 3, were welcomed by Ibrahim, Makhlouf as well as Muslim sheikhs and Christian bishops when their convoy arrived at Jdaidet Yabouss. The release of the nuns followed a rare meeting between two senior Qatari and Syrian officials despite strained relations between the two countries damaged by the 3-year-old war in Syria, reports said.
Qatari Intelligence chief Saadeh al-Kbeisi, who arrived in Beirut earlier Sunday to follow up on the case, traveled to Damascus where he met with Maj. Gen. Ali Mamlouk, head of the Syrian National Security Bureau, to discuss the release of the nuns, security reports said.
If confirmed, it would be the first public meeting between two senior Syrian and Qatari officials since relations between the two countries soured after Qatar supported Syrian opposition groups fighting to topple President Bashar Assad’s regime.
Ibrahim, who played a vital role last year in mediating between the regime and the opposition for the release of nine Lebanese hostages, said he would pursue his attempts to secure the release of the two Greek Orthodox bishops.
Security sources said the nuns were taken to Arsal after they were released by their captors in the rebel-held town of Yabroud, about 20 km to the north. Assad’s troops have launched a major military operation in an attempt to evict rebels entrenched in the town’s mountains.
The nuns went missing after Syrian rebel forces, including Islamist fighters, captured the ancient quarter of the Christian town of Maaloula, north of Damascus. The town is located on the edge of the rugged Qalamoun region, about 60 kilometers northeast of the capital.
After being held in the Greek Orthodox monastery of Mar Thecla in Maaloula, they were reportedly taken to Yabroud.
Maaloula’s historic value lies in its ancient Christian presence and the fact that some of its residents still speak Aramaic, the language Jesus Christ is believed to have spoken.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group identified the rebels who took the nuns as militants from the Nusra Front, Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria. The Observatory and a rebel source in the area said the release of the nuns had been agreed as part of a swap in which the government would free scores of women prisoners.