Syrian rebels release 141 female prisoners in exchange for Maaloula nuns
The Syrian opposition said Monday that 141 women prisoners were freed from regime jails as part of a swap deal involving the release of 13 nuns abducted from the Syrian Christian town of Maaloula.
“We have information that 141 women were released,” opposition activist Hadi al-Abdallah, who filmed a video showing the exchange of prisoners, told Agence France Presse.
Abdallah said the freed women prisoners were bused to the border late Sunday ahead of the arrival of the nuns.
"Most have returned to Syria because they want to be with their families," he told AFP via Skype.
"The operation is a success because we are the winners," he added.
The nuns, who were kidnapped in December by Islamist rebels, were freed on Monday in a rare prisoner swap in a three-year war whose brutality was highlighted in a new Amnesty report.
The women, who arrived in the early hours at the government-held town of Jdeidet Yabous near the border with Lebanon, were exhausted but praised those who negotiated their release.
"We want to thank God, who made it possible for us to be here now," one of the Greek Orthodox nuns told reporters.
She thanked Syrian President Bashar Assad and Qatari Emir Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani, a leading supporter of the opposition, as well as Lebanon's General Security chief Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, who mediated the exchange.
Ibrahim told al-Jadeed TV that no ransom was paid, and the deal involved the release of "more than 150 female prisoners."
The nun, seated and dressed in her black religious habit, said all 16 hostages were treated "well" in captivity.
The kidnappers, Islamist fighters from the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front, "were giving us everything we asked for," she said.
"No one bothered us," she added, denying rumors the kidnappers had forced the Syrian and Lebanese nuns to remove their crosses.
They reached Jdeidet Yabous after an arduous nine-hour journey from the rebel-held town of Yabrud into Lebanon and then back into Syria via the official crossing.
The prisoner exchange came as pro-government forces put the rebels under mounting pressure in Yabrud, their last stronghold in the Qalamoun mountains between Damascus and the Lebanese border.
The video filmed by al-Abdallah shows the women being escorted to a transfer point by opposition fighters.
One nun was carried to a van by a fighter whose face was wrapped in a black scarf. The van and other vehicles in the convoy flew the black flag used by jihadists.
At the transfer point, the nuns moved forward as government security forces handed over a woman prisoner and her children.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that in all 150 women who had been held in government jails were released at the Masnaa border crossing in exchange for the nuns.
Tens of thousands of people, including hundreds of children, are being held in jails run by all sides in the Syrian conflict, where torture and ill-treatment are systematic, human rights groups say.