Reports: 13 nuns freed by kidnappers in Syria

[vimeo][/vimeo]By Salma Abdelaziz and Ashley Fantz, CNN
CNN) — Thirteen nuns and three workers kidnapped in late November from a Greek Orthodox monastery in Syria were freed Sunday, a pro-Syrian government news network and Lebanese state media reported.

A convoy of around 30 vehicles picked up the nuns and workers in one part of Syria and took them into Lebanon, the country’s National News Agency reported late Sunday. The convoy traveled through Lebanon to another border crossing into Syria, the hillside village of Jdaidet Yabous. There, the group will be met by Greek Orthodox church officials, who will welcome them back into Syria, Syrian state news agency SANA reported.

The convoy was at one point delayed several hours for “logistical reasons” but later resumed en route to Jdaidet Yabous, Public Security Director Gen. Abbas Ibrahim told NNA.

When they did arrive overnight, the nuns — some smiling, some solemn and at least one of whom appeared to be being carried — were mobbed by an enthusiastic crowd that included church officials.

A handout photo released by Syria’s Arab News Agency shows Syrian President Bashar al-Assad speaking during a meeting in Damascus, Syria, on Saturday, March 8, to mark the 51st anniversary of the 1963 revolution, when Baath Party supporters in the Syrian army seized power. Al-Assad said the country will go on with reconciliation efforts along with its fight against terrorism. The United Nations estimates more than 100,000 people have been killed since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011.

Syrians inspect the rubble of destroyed buildings in Aleppo, Syria, following a reported airstrike by Syrian government forces on Friday, March 7, during Friday prayers.

People dig through the rubble of a building in Damascus, Syria, that was allegedly hit by government airstrikes on Thursday, February 27.

A boy walks ahead of men carrying the body of his mother in Aleppo, Syria, on Saturday, February 22. According to activists, the woman was killed when explosive barrels were thrown by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

A man holds a baby who survived what activists say was an airstrike by al-Assad loyalists Friday, February 14, in Aleppo.

In this photo provided by the anti-government activist group Aleppo Media Center, Syrian men help survivors out of a building in Aleppo after it was bombed, allegedly by a Syrian regime warplane on Saturday, February 8.

Syrians gather at a site hit by barrel bombs, allegedly dropped by a regime helicopter on the opposition-controlled Mesekin Hananu district of Aleppo on February 8.

In this handout photo released by the official Syrian Arab News Agency on February 8, civilians wave national flags in Damascus as they take part in a rally in support of President al-Assad.

A man stands next to debris in the road following a reported airstrike by Syrian government forces in Aleppo on February 8.

Medical personnel look for survivors after a reported airstrike in Aleppo on Saturday, February 1.

Syrians carry a dead body following an airstrike on February 1.

A man walks amid debris and dust on January 31.

An injured man is covered in dust after an airstrike on January 29.

A man tries to fix electrical wires in Aleppo on January 27.

Rebels and civilians check out a crater that activists say resulted from a Syrian government airstrike on an Aleppo bus station on Tuesday, January 21.

Men rush to a site that Syrian government forces reportedly hit in Aleppo on January 21.

Buildings lie in ruins in Aleppo on Sunday, January 19, after reported air raids by Syrian government planes.

A Syrian child collects items from a garbage pile in Douma, northeast of the capital, on Saturday, January 18.

A piece of exploded mortar lies in a street in Daraya, a city southwest of Damascus, on Friday, January 17.

Photos: Syrian civil war in 2014 Photos: Syrian civil war in 2014

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Ibrahim said that no money was paid to secure the release of the nuns, adding that it was part of a deal in exchange for 150 females that the Syrian government was holding.

Qatari intelligence chief Saadeh Kobeisi reportedly crossed deep into Syrian territory to obtain the release of the Syrian nuns. He crossed into Syria as part of a Lebanese Internal Security delegation, the state news agency said.

Senior Orthodox Bishop Lucas al-Khoury earlier Sunday spoke to pro-Syrian government Ikhbariya television. He stood on the Syrian side of the border hoping to greet the nuns and said the negotiations for their release took several months because the kidnappers “made false requests intended to stall the process.”

The Greek Orthodox figure, who often speaks out on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government, added that the recent Syrian troop offensive on the opposition stronghold of Yabroud worked in favor of the nuns’ release.

Days after the kidnapping, SANA reported that armed terrorists took the nuns, implying that rebels fighting to oust al-Assad were behind the attack.

The chief of an opposition group based in London told CNN he had confirmed that al-Nusra Front fighters abducted the nuns, but Rami Abdurrahman said the fighters did so to protect them from what the group believed would be an impending attack by Syrian government forces.

CNN could not confirm Abdurrahman’s account of why the nuns were taken from the Monastery of Saint Tecla in the predominantly Christian village of Maaloula, about 40 miles west of Damascus. Abdurrahman leads the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, based in Great Britain.

The U.S. State Department has designated the al-Nusra Front a terrorist organization with links to al Qaeda.

Christians make up about 10% of the population of Syria, but Christianity has a rich history there.

Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River, and some people believe it was in a location now along a part of modern-day Syria. Some of the earliest relics were found there. And Maaloula, in the Qalamoun Mountains, is one of the last places where the ancient Aramaic that Jesus spoke is still the main language.

Many of Syria’s Christians support the al-Assad government, fearing that an end to his presidency could lead to instability and an Islamist power grab.

Meanwhile, on Sunday four rescue workers who rushed to help survivors of a barrel bomb attack in the city of Aleppo became victims themselves when more of the crude explosive devices were dropped by government helicopters, according to the Aleppo Media Center, a communication outlet run by rebels fighting to oust al-Assad.

At least 14 are reported dead in that incident, the outlet said.

In another neighborhood Sunday, rescue workers recovered the bodies of a husband, wife and five children ranging in ages from 5 to 14, the outlet reported. A barrel bomb had apparently leveled their home, it said. The attack killed at least 10 people total and destroyed six residential buildings, the outlet reported.

The father of one child victim wept and flailed his arms against his body as he cried, “Where is my son, my Hamoudi? They buried them alive. Oh God, they buried them alive!” a video on YouTube shows.

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