03/10/2014, 00.00
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Ma'aloula nuns freed in exchange for 150 rebels held prisoner

by Paul Dakiki
The release took place around midnight, hours after the news first broke. The Lebanese and Qatari security chiefs Abbas Ibrahim and Ghanim al- Kubaisi were key mediators. The nuns were held on the second and third floor of a house controlled by the Al Nusra Front rebels for two months. Great publicity and media alerted ahead of release.

Beirut ( AsiaNews) - The group of Orthodox nuns kidnapped last December in Maaloula were released last night around midnight. In return, the Syrian regime released 153 rebels held prisoners.

The 13 nuns and three of their assistants were received by a convoy of cars that had arrived in Rahoua in Syria from Arsal in the Bekaa district of Lebanon.

The news of their imminent release had broken yesterday morning. All day, a Lebanese security convoy, headed by Security Chief Gen. Abbas Ibrahim waited on the Syrian border for hours for the go ahead to collect the nuns. According to Lebanese media sources, the kidnappers had second thoughts , but in the end the sisters were brought to safety. It is assumed - but not certain -that they were brought to Damascus.

Their first statements described how they had "arrived late" and were "tired", but that they were "well treated" by their kidnappers .

In recent days it became clear that the nuns had been kidnapped by the Al Nusra Front, a rebel group linked to al Qaeda, fighting with the Syrian government but also with other rebel groups to head the opposition. The Al Nusra Front has been branded as "terrorist" even by Saudi Arabia, the main sponsor of the Syrian rebels.

There were many mediators for the nuns' release. The most important were Gen. Ibrahim and the Gen. Ghanim al- Kubaisi, Qatari Chief of Security, another strong rebel supporter, both present at the release. The two had already worked effectively for the release of a group of Shiite pilgrims from Iran last October.

Abducted on 3 December Maaloula , north of Damascus, the sisters were brought to Yabroud , about 20 km to the north, currently under fire from the Syrian regular army . According to Bishop Louka Khouri the Greek - Orthodox patriarch of Syria, the Syrian army's pressure on Yabroud facilitated the nun's release.

George Hasouani, another mediator who had negotiated in vain with the Al Nusra Front, said that the nuns were held for two months in a house he owned in Yabroud , living together in the second and third floor, while the first was occupied by the rebels. In this way they could receive food, clothing, blankets and medicines, as some of them are suffering from hypertension and diabetes.

Many Lebanese were surprised by the media clamor that surround the nun's release.  A large number of journalists and broadcasters were summoned to the border between Syria and Lebanon.

Two bishops of Aleppo, Greek - Orthodox bishop Boulos Yazigi , and Syrian Orthodox bishop Youhanna Ibrahim, and some priests are still in the hands of their kidnappers, including Italian Jesuit missionary Fr. Paolo dall'Oglio.



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