BEIRUT: Lebanon used tact in securing the release of 13 nuns kidnapped by the Nusra Front in Syria, exploiting changes on the ground in the Qalamoun region, Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim said Monday.
“We have been working silently and relentlessly for four months to end this case,” Ibrahim told the BBC.
“The circumstances on the ground in Yabroud [in the Qalamoun region] changed and we reached a stage similar to that of the Azaz case,” he added.
Ibrahim gained prominence after he successfully mediated the release of nine Lebanese who were held by Syrian rebels in the town of Azaz. Qatar also played a critical role in the release of the Lebanese.
“When the military situation on the ground changed, it was an incentive to end the case [of the nine Lebanese] and we interfered at the appropriate time,” he said.
Syrian regime forces are trying to wrest control of the rebel-held town of Yabroud as part of its military campaign in the Qalamoun region. Yabroub is the last rebel stronghold bordering Lebanon.
On Sunday night, the Nusra Front released 13 nuns and their three housemaids in a swap deal for 150, mostly female inmates in Syria prisons. Both Qatar and Lebanon mediated in the case.
The Greek Orthodox nuns were reported missing from their monastery in December when radical rebel groups stormed the historic Syrian Christian town of Maaloula.
Ibrahim, the head of Lebanon’s General Security, said the mediators had intervened at the right time to end the case of the group of nuns that included two Lebanese and one Iraqi.
“Negotiating is a tough task but it is about seizing opportunities and timing,” he said.
In the interview with the BBC, Ibrahim said the kidnappers were Nusra Front members and had originally demanded the release of 1,000 prisoners.
“They asked for 1,000 names but some of them were not allowed to be released according to Syrian law given that they had committed major crimes,” he said.
The prisoners released in the swap included rebel fighters who “had not committed crimes,” he added.
The release of the nuns has raised hope for a similar conclusion to the case of two Syrian bishops who were abducted on April 22, 2013, in Syria’s Aleppo.
The security chief said his next step would be to follow up on the case of Aleppo’s Greek Orthodox Archbishop Paul Yazigi and Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Yohanna Ibrahim.
Meanwhile, President Michel Sleiman thanked Qatar and Syria for the roles they played in the release of the nuns.
“Sleiman thanked in a phone call Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani and the Qatari and Syrian states and concerned parties on this matter and efforts that facilitated the release of the nuns,” a statement from Baabda Palace said.
Sleiman also praised the role Ibrahim played in ensuring the release of the nuns and condemned “acts of kidnapping by any side under any pretext.”
Progressive Socialist Party head MP Walid Jumblatt, in his weekly column to Al-Anbaa, also hailed the swap deal but criticized Damascus, saying “hundreds of thousands” were still being held in prisons or detention centers in Syria “not to mention those who were liquidated.”
According to the Baabda Palace statement, during talks with the heads of the Army, police and General Security, Sleiman stressed the need to continue ongoing contacts to secure the release of the two bishops.
He also urged the security chiefs to continue efforts toward resolving the cases of Samir Kassab, a Lebanese photojournalist who went missing in rural Aleppo last October, and Joseph Sader, an IT manager at Middle East Airlines who was kidnapped in 2009 while he was headed to Beirut airport.