Middle East

Lebanese troops freed by Syrian jihadists in prisoner swap

A Lebanese soldier helps a fellow member of the security forces held captive by al-Nusra Front moments after his release on 1 December 2015, in the village of Labweh, Lebanon Image copyright AFP
Image caption One of those released (R) is helped by a security forces colleague in the village of Labweh

Al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate has freed 16 Lebanese security personnel held captive for almost 16 months as part of a swap deal, officials say.

The handover took place outside the north-eastern border town of Arsal, where the men had been seized.

Earlier, al-Nusra Front handed over to officials the body of one of four security personnel killed in captivity.

The release is part of a deal brokered by Qatar that saw the Lebanese authorities free 13 Islamist prisoners.

One of them was Saja al-Dulaimi, an ex-wife of so-called Islamic State (IS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and daughter of an al-Nusra Front member.

IS captives not included

Jihadist militants from al-Nusra and IS, which are violently opposed to each other, seized more than two dozen soldiers and policemen during a major attack on Arsal in August 2014.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Relatives of the Lebanese security personnel celebrated their release in downtown Beirut

Al-Nusra demanded that the Lebanese government free radical Sunni Islamist prisoners in exchange for the captives, and killed four of them in an attempt to force Beirut to act.

Relatives of the security personnel also set up protest camps outside the government's headquarters in Beirut and organised regular demonstrations to press officials to negotiate their release.

On Tuesday, the Lebanese General Security Directorate (GSD) confirmed that 16 soldiers and police held by al-Nusra had been handed to the Red Cross in wintry conditions in Wadi Hamid, in the hills near the Syrian border.

Rare moment of joy - Jim Muir, BBC News, Beirut

In a deeply-divided country which has not been able to elect a president for 18 months, the release of the Lebanese army and police prisoners in a deal with al-Nusra Front provided a rare moment of national joy and unity.

The army and police personnel seized by Nusra and Islamic State in August last year came from across the sectarian spectrum, so the affair transcended the sectarian rifts that bedevil Lebanese politics.

They included Christians as well as Muslims of different denominations. The Druze chief, Walid Jumblatt, played a key role in discreet mediation led by Qatar, which has channels to the Syrian militants.

The tortuous complexity of the negotiations, which broke down several times, led to some optimism that other intractable problems might also be solvable, not least the thorny issue of the vacant presidency.

Suleiman Franjieh, a Syria-leaning northern leader whose late grandfather of the same name was president in the 1970s, is currently in the spotlight as a figure who might win broad support.

Qatar-based Al Jazeera TV interviewed one of the captives as they were being driven to the exchange point, accompanied by masked men armed with rifles.

"We would like to thank al-Nusra Front for releasing us. We would like to thank everyone who took part in the negotiations that led to our release," the captive said.

Three women, one of them wearing a full-face veil and carrying a baby, were also shown getting out of a separate convoy of vehicles that included Red Cross cars.

The woman wearing the veil confirmed in an interview with Al Jazeera that she was Saja al-Dulaimi. She said that she had been divorced by Baghdadi "six or seven years ago", adding that she would probably head to Turkey following her release.

Lebanese officials said Ms Dulaimi, who is now married to a Palestinian, was pregnant when she was detained along with her two sons and a daughter - believed to be Baghdadi's - at a border crossing with Syria last November. She was reported to have given birth to a son in prison.

Earlier, the body of a soldier killed in captivity in September 2014 by al-Nusra, Mohammed Hamiya, was handed over to the Red Cross and GSD agents.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Al-Nusra Front began the prisoner swap by handing over the body of a soldier killed in captivity

Another nine Lebanese security personnel are still being held by IS. Their fate is unknown, and there are no known channels for negotiation.

The GSD said on Tuesday it would exert all possible efforts to secure their release.

The conflict in Syria has heightened sectarian tensions in Lebanon, with violence regularly spilling over its border and more than a million refugees arriving.