DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — 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 Tuesday.
Qatari and Lebanese officials, who were mediating between Damascus and the rebels holding the nuns, said previously that 150 women prisoners were released early Monday.
“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 Monday 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 early Monday.
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 Tuesday, more than half of the 2 million Syrian refugees – about 1.2 million – are children. Nearly a half of those are under the age of five. Another 3 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.
Surk reported from Beirut.