Beirut, Asharq Al-Awsat—Thirteen Lebanese and Syrian nuns seized by Syrian rebels three months ago were released on Sunday after intense international mediation efforts involving Lebanese, Qatari, Turkish and Syrian officials.
The nuns were released in exchange for the release of over 150 women and children detained by the Syrian government. News reports in Beirut said that the deal included the payment of 4 million US dollars according to the Lebanese Broadcasting Company, one of the leading private television channels in the country.
The sequence of events that led to their arrival in Lebanon began on Sunday morning, when the Syrian authorities alerted the media that the nuns would be arriving at Judaydat Yabus on the Lebanese border. The Lebanese media also reported the possibility of the nuns’ release, coinciding with the arrival of Qatari intelligence chief Saada Al-Kabisi in Beirut from Istanbul.
Lebanon’s chief of General Security, Abbas Ibrahim, confirmed the news of the Maaloula nuns’ release, saying at noon on Sunday that “the decision to release them has been taken. It will take some time due to logistical barriers.”
He clarified his statement, adding: “There is no obstruction, but we are waiting for the time of the nuns’ transfer to be determined.”
An officer from Lebanese General Security and a Qatari security official both headed to the Lebanese town of Arsal to meet the nuns, who then travelled on Sunday evening to the Greek Orthodox patriarchate in Damascus in the company of Lebanese officials.
Ibrahim and Al-Kabisi crossed the Masnaa border control in the direction of Damascus after midday, in preparation for the nuns’ reception by church and government officials General Ibrahim, who has been to Turkey and Qatar to follow the efforts to release the nuns, as well as Bishops Yohanna Ibrahim and Boulos Yaziji, who were abducted in April near Aleppo.
This comes after the success of negotiations led by Turkey and Qatar last summer which led to the release of nine Lebanese citizens after they were abducted from the Syrian town of Azaz in May 2012.
The nuns were kidnapped from the St. Thekla Convent in the Old Quarter of the predominantly Christian town of Maaloula, on the outskirts of Damascus, in December. The Islamist Al-Nusra Front has been accused of carrying out the kidnapping, as the group controlled the town where the convent is located at the time of the seizure.
On December 7 the nuns appeared in a video in which they said they were in good health and denied reports that they had been kidnapped. It is not clear when or where the video was filmed. Responding to questions from the man behind the camera, they said they had left the convent to flee from shelling and that they would leave in two days.
Last week a source close to the ongoing negotiations told AFP that contact with the nuns had been lost after they were moved from Yabroud when clashes between the government and the opposition intensified on the outskirts of the town.
Opposition sources told Asharq Al-Awsat at the time that the nuns had been moved to a “safer place” in the Qalamoun region due to the bombardment of the town. They confirmed the nuns were well and close to the Syrian–Lebanese border.
While waiting with a large Syrian delegation for the nuns to arrive at the border, Bishop Luca Al-Kouri of the Greek Orthodox patriarchate attributed the nuns’ release to “the efforts of the Syrian army and its siege of Yabroud.” He denied the existence of any deal.