Syria Islamists free nuns in rare prisoner swap

A group of nuns kidnapped in a Syrian village were freed Monday, part of a rare prisoner swap in a three-year war whose brutality is highlighted in a new Amnesty report.

Jihadists seized the 13 nuns and three maids on December 3 from the famed Christian village of Maalula — where residents still speak the ancient Aramaic of Jesus Christ — and took them to the nearby town of Yabrud.

The women, who arrived after midnight at the regime-held town of Jdeidet Yabus 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 nun told reporters.

She thanked Syria's President Bashar al-Assad and Qatari emir Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani as well as Lebanon's General Security agency director Abbas Ibrahim, who mediated the exchange.

He told Lebanon's New 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'

"No one bothered us," she added, denying rumours their kidnappers had forced the group of Syrian and Lebanese nuns to remove their crosses.

The nuns will be officially welcomed home Monday at the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Damascus.

They arrived at Jdeidet Yabus after an arduous nine-hour journey that took them from Yabrud into Lebanon, then back into Syria via the official crossing.

A video posted online by activists showed the women being transported to a transfer point by opposition fighters.

One nun was carried to a van by a fighter whose face is wrapped in a black scarf, and their convoy then moves along a road, flying the black flag used by jihadists.

At the transfer point, the nuns move forward as government security forces hand over a woman prisoner and her children.

A Britain-based monitoring group said 150 women who had been held in Syria's jails were on board four buses at the Lebanese-Syrian border, after being freed in exchange for the nuns.

"A woman and her four children who had been in jail were freed first and reached Yabrud," said Rami Abdel Rahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

But a security official said he could not confirm whether the remaining prisoners had yet been freed.

Tens of thousands of people, including hundreds of children, are being held in Syria's jails, where torture and ill-treatment are systematic, rights groups say.

Sema Nassar, an activist who works on the issue of detainees, said she feared some of the released prisoners may face re-arrest in future should they return to Syria.

"In previous operations of this kind, women who have been released have only been detained again a couple of weeks later," she told AFP.

The prisoner exchange comes as Syria's army, backed by Lebanon's Shiite Hezbollah movement and local pro-regime militias, fights to seize Yabrud, the last opposition stronghold in the strategic Qalamun area.

Starvation used as 'weapon'

Rights group Amnesty International meanwhile issued a report on Monday accusing Syria's army of using starvation as a "weapon of war" in its siege of a Palestinian refugee camp in southern Damascus.

The watchdog said nearly 200 people had died since the army siege of the Yarmuk camp was tightened in July 2013 and access to food and medicine cut.

"Life in Yarmuk has grown increasingly unbearable for desperate civilians who find themselves starving and trapped in a downward cycle of suffering with no means of escape," said Amnesty's Philip Luther.

Amnesty said the Yarmuk siege was "the deadliest of a series of armed blockades of other civilian areas, imposed by Syrian armed forces or armed opposition groups on a quarter of a million people across the country."

Syrian troops have besieged the camp as near-daily battles rage between rebels and pro-regime fighters.

Most of area's 170,000 residents have fled, but some 20,000 are still trapped inside the camp, facing hardship and hunger, according to the UN refugee agency UNRWA.

More than 140,000 people have been killed in the Syrian conflict, which began in March 2011 with peaceful anti-government protests.

Another 2.5 million Syrians have fled across the borders and a further 6.5 million are displaced inside the devastated country.

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