Syria's al-Qaida branch releases captive Lebanese soldiers
BEIRUT (AP) -- Syria's al-Qaida branch on Tuesday released a group of Lebanese troops held captive for over a year as part of a Qatar-brokered swap in which Lebanon freed at least 11 prisoners, including a former wife of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
The release caps Lebanon's ordeal over the fate of its soldiers while also providing the al-Qaida branch, known as the Nusra Front, with new leverage as a group that can be negotiated with in Syria's chaotic civil war.
The fate of the Lebanese troops has shaken the tiny Mediterranean country, which has seen innumerable spillovers from the civil war in neighboring Syria.
"My happiness is beyond description," said a Lebanese policeman, one of the 16 released on Tuesday, shortly after he was brought to the point where the exchange took place on the edge of Arsal.
Families and friends of the abducted soldiers and policemen, who have held a months-long sit-in in downtown Beirut broke into a dance and cheered as news of the released reached them. Families were showered with rose petals and friends passed around sweets to the media and visitors who showed up to offer congratulations.
Earlier in the day, masked Nusra Front fighters brought the captive troops in three pickup trucks to a meeting point on the edge of the town to be handed over to Lebanese authorities, who were waiting along with Red Cross vehicles and the 11 prisoners who were part of the exchange.
Militants waving black al-Qaida flags fanned out across the area, with several taking positions on the roof of a building overlooking the location. The deal went ahead after trucks carrying humanitarian aid entered Arsal as part of the deal.
Later Tuesday, Qatar's Foreign Ministry acknowledged that it had brokered the deal, saying it had received requests from the Lebanese government to negotiate.
The Gulf nation, a strong supporter of insurgents fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad, relishes its role as a meeting ground for often thorny negotiations - a position helped by its willingness to maintain channels to a broad range of parties, including Islamist groups like the Afghan Taliban.
It previously hosted peace talks between Sudanese officials and Darfur rebel groups, and more recently hosted gatherings of Syrian opposition groups fighting to oust Assad.
Qatari intermediaries also helped U.S. officials negotiate for the release of captive U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl last year.
Several previous attempts to secure a deal with the Nusra Front had ended in failure. Frustrated relatives held protests, often blocking main roads with their bodies, to no avail.
Tuesday's exchange comes amid heightened diplomatic activity to end Syria's civil war, now in its fifth year. It reflects an attempt by the group to portray itself as a more moderate player, one that can be negotiated with at a time when the West and Russia are trying to separate "terrorist" groups in Syria from opposition factions they can communicate with.
Pan-Arab satellite channel Al-Jazeera, along with the Lebanese local MTV station, broadcast the troops' release. The captives were seen sporting beards but appeared to be in good health.
Suleiman Dirani, one of those held captive, thanked "our brothers" from the Nusra Front for what he said was good treatment. "We are leaving here as we came, we are all in good health," he said.
At least 11 prisoners in Lebanese jails, including five women, were released as part of the deal, according to a senior Lebanese security official.
The group included Saja al-Dulaimi, the 26-year-old former wife of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with regulations. Al-Dulaimi was detained in Lebanon last year after she crossed into the country illegally with her current husband using forged identity cards.
Al-Jazeera said 13 prisoners were handed over to Nusra Front. It was not immediately clear whether that number included two prisoners held by the Syrian government. Local media had reported that the deal may include prisoners held in Syria.
Al-Dulaimi, who appeared in Lebanese court for a hearing last month, was seen along with her four children at the meeting point Tuesday.
"They say that I was the wife of al-Baghdadi. I don't know, we have been divorced for six or seven years," she told Al-Jazeera upon her arrival to the area controlled by the Nusra Front.
Asked what she plans to do after her release, al-Dulaimi, who had her face veiled, said she wanted to go live in Turkey.
She spoke from inside an SUV, holding in her arms her four-month-old son Youssef, who was born while she was in jail. Al-Baghdadi's biological daughter, Hajar, 7, was also in the car, sitting next to her mother. The girl looked into the camera and said "can I talk?"
The Nusra Front and the Islamic State group abducted 29 soldiers and policemen in Arsal last year when they briefly overran the town. Four have been killed in captivity while the Islamic State group has refused to negotiate on the nine captives it holds.
Associated Press writers Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report.