DAMASCUS, Syria — The Syrian government freed only 25 prisoners — and not the 150 reported by foreign mediators — in exchange for 13 Greek Orthodox nuns who had been held by al-Qaida-linked rebels, the country’s information minister said on March 11.
Qatari and Lebanese officials, who were mediating between Damascus and the rebels holding the nuns, said previously that 150 women prisoners were released early March 10.
“The real number of those who were freed in exchange for the release of the nuns, who were kidnapped by armed terrorist gangs, is 25 persons,” Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi said on state TV.
Damascus typically does not comment on releases in exchange for people held by rebels. Al-Zoubi’s remarks were a rare acknowledgement that President Bashar Assad’s government made any concessions to the rebels fighting to oust him from power.
The nuns were captured in December as opposition fighters overran a Christian village, north of the capital.
The women were held by the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front rebel group in Yabroud near the Syrian border with Lebanon. In recent weeks, the town has been the scene of fierce fighting as Syrian government troops, backed by Lebanon’s Hezbollah militants, try to oust the rebels from the border area.
Their release and return to Damascus provided an unusual example of regional actors cooperating to reach across the Syrian civil war’s sectarian and ideological fault lines, which have sharply split the Middle East.
The energy-rich Gulf nation of Qatar, a chief backer of the rebels fighting to topple Assad, was involved in the mediation. Lebanon’s General Security Chief Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, a powerful figure trusted by the Lebanese militant Hezbollah group and its Syrian government allies, was on hand to receive the nuns.
Al-Zoubi denied there were any direct contacts between Syrian and Qatari officials to reach the deal. Assad’s government accuses the Gulf state of supporting terrorists — a term they use for the rebels — in a plot to destroy Syria.
The Syrian conflict started as largely peaceful protests against Assad’s rule in March 2011. Since then it has deteriorated into a civil war in which more than 140,000 people have been killed, activists say. Millions have fled their homes and sought shelter in safer parts of their homeland or in neighboring states.
According to a UNICEF report released on March 11, more than half of the two million Syrian refugees — about 1.2 million — are children. Nearly a half of those are under the age of five. Another three million children have been displaced inside Syria because of the fighting, the report said.
Children have been hit hard during the conflict, now entering its fourth year. More than 10,000 children have been killed in the fighting, UNICEF said. Thousands have lost limbs, parents, teachers, schools, homes and virtually every aspect of their childhood, the report said.
The nuns freed after being held hostage by al-Qaida-linked Syrian rebels arrived in Damascus March 10, ending their four-month ordeal in a rare prisoner exchange with the government.
The 13 women said they were treated well by rebels and appeared so in a video of their release issued by the al-Qaida group. It showed a masked gunman carrying one elderly nun who was too weak to walk to a waiting vehicle. Activists said the release came in exchange for 150 female prisoners held by the government.
Residents gave the nuns a warm welcome at the Church of the Cross in the predominantly Christian neighborhood of Qassaa, state news agency SANA reported.
They were released in a rare deal between the Syrian government and rebels of the so-called Nusra Front that was mediated by the Gulf country of Qatar, traditionally a rebel supporter.
The video appeared genuine and consistent with The Associated Press’ reporting. The dialogue it showed between the nuns and the armed, masked Sunni militants was surprising for the familiarity with which they addressed each other.
“What we did was less than what we should have done,” an off camera rebel voice said to a nun, likely referring to the length of their captivity. He said that God will reward the nuns for their suffering.
“May God reward every person who sought to resolve this problem,” said the nun, who later exclaims: “Four months, man!”
As the women reach the car, the unseen rebel says, “I was so happy to be in communication with you and I hope that we can stay in communication, if God decides that. Please say hello to your families for me, and I hope you arrive safely.”
Rami Abdurrahman of the Britain-based Observatory for the Human Rights said the government freed 150 women prisoners and three children of a prisoner in exchange for the nuns.
In Damascus, the nuns prayed before heading to the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Old Damascus, where they will now stay, SANA said.
Patriarchal assistant, Bishop Luca al-Khoury, who led an official church reception to greet the nuns, accused the rebels fighting to overthrow President Bashar Assad of targeting Syria’s patchwork of religious minorities. Al-Khoury is a frequent defender of Assad’s rule.
“Syria, which does not differentiate between Muslims and Christians, is targeted … by the armed terrorist groups who don’t understand anything but the language of killing and destruction.”
Although the nuns appear to be treated well, their seizure confirmed the fears of many Syrian Christians that they were being targeted by extremists among the rebels in the increasingly sectarian three-year conflict.
The country’s chaotic mix of rebel groups is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim, while minorities include Christians, Shiite Muslims and Alawites — whose sect is a Shiite offshoot. Most have sided with Assad or remained neutral, fearing for their fate should rebels take power. Assad is an Alawite.
Two bishops were seized in rebel-held areas in April, and an Italian Jesuit priest, Father Paolo Dall’Oglio, went missing in July after traveling to meet militants in Raqqa. None have been heard from since.
The energy-rich Gulf nation of Qatar had been involved in the mediation that freed the nuns since December, Qatari Foreign Minister Khalid bin Mohammed al-Attiyah said in a statement carried by his country’s official news agency.
Also, the international rights group Amnesty International accused the Syrian government of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity by blockading and starving civilians in the southern Damascus neighborhood of Yarmouk.
Amnesty said it estimated 128 people starved to death in Palestinian-dominated Yarmouk since a yearlong blockade on the area was tightened in July by forces loyal to Assad, who sought to flush out rebels and to punish civilians for harboring them.
Efforts to reach a truce in Yarmouk allowing food deliveries to starving residents have repeatedly collapsed.
By Albert Aji, Barbara Surk and Diaa Hadid. Adam Schreck contributed reporting from Dubai.