DAMASCUS: Syria’s information minister has disputed reports that 150 prisoners were freed in exchange for a group of kidnapped nuns, insisting that only 25 were in fact released.
“The number of people released in exchange for the Maaloula nuns is not more than 25 people whose hands had not been stained by the blood of the Syrian people,” state news agency SANA quoted Omran al-Zoubi as saying Tuesday.
“Everything that has been said on this issue is not accurate and has been exaggerated.”
His remarks directly contradicted comments made by the opposition and Lebanon’s General Security chief Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, who mediated the exchange and said more than 150 prisoners were freed under the deal.
The nuns were kidnapped from the town of Maaloula, close to the border with Lebanon, by rebel fighters in December last year. Two of them are Lebanese.
Opponents close to the exchange operation told AFP Monday that 141 women detainees and an unspecified “small” number of men had been released in exchange for 13 nuns and three civilian helpers kidnapped from the ancient Christian town in December.
Zoubi also denied reports the deal had been secured thanks to a mediation process involving Qatar, which is a key backer of the uprising against Syria’s government.
“The operation ... was carried out without any direct or indirect contact between Syria and Qatar,” he said.
The statements followed an outpouring of rage by supporters of President Bashar Assad over the swap, with some pro-regime media outlets and activists directing their anger at the nuns.
Social media websites were buzzingwith photographs and videos of the swap. The footage detailed the nuns’ journey to the site of the exchange, and at one point showed a Nusra Front fighter carrying an elderly nun who was too infirm to walk to a waiting vehicle.
After their release, one of the Greek Orthodox nuns thanked Assad and Lebanon’s General Security for mediating the deal, but she also thanked Qatari Emir Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani.
She said the kidnappers, the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, had treated them well and denied rumors that the nuns were forced to remove their crosses.
Their statements contrasted with the regime’s blanket description of Syria’s rebels as “terrorists.”
“I’d like to remind you that at the start of the events in Maaloula the Syrian army tried to get [the nuns] out of there, but they refused because they had relations with the armed men [rebels],” one pro-regime activist said on Facebook.
A news presenter on the pro-Assad Sama TV network accused the nuns Monday of “treachery, or at the very least, stepping away from the nation.”
Since the anti-Assad revolt began in March 2011, the regime has sought to portray itself as the protector of Syria’s multiple religious and ethnic minorities.