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Friday, October 28, 2016

By Mitchell Prothero, McClatchy Foreign Staff

BEIRUT — The deal that saw the release over the weekend of 13 Syrian nuns who had been abducted in December by anti-government fighters happened largely because rebel forces fear they are about to lose control of the area where the nuns were being held.

Lebanese security officials familiar with the details of the negotiations for the nuns’ release said both sides realized that as government forces surrounded the rebel stronghold of Yabroud, they faced the possibility that the nuns would be killed, either by their captors or in a crossfire. Such a result would not only mean the death of the nuns, but also eliminate any possibility of a ransom being paid for their release.

The complex series of negotiations involved the head of Qatar’s intelligence services, a pro-Syrian regime Lebanese intelligence officer, the al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front, the Syrian government and the rebel group that abducted the nuns from the Greek Orthodox Mar Takla monastery in Maloula in early December.

The nuns were transferred to the custody of Lebanese authorities late Sunday in exchange for the government’s release of 153 prisoners as well as a sizable ransom payment made to the original kidnappers, according to public statements by both sides and private statements by intelligence officials familiar with the process.

A Lebanese security official, who spoke on the condition that he not be identified because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the delicate negotiations, said that the progress of Syrian government troops and fighters from the Lebanese Hezbollah movement against rebel forces in an area known as the Qalamoun was the spark that drove the deal.

“The regime’s and Hezbollah’s progress in Qalamoun over the last week meant Yabroud was increasingly surrounded,” the official said. “The Nusra Front realized they had to act quickly to get any sort of deal from the regime or they would risk seeing the nuns freed or, worse, killed in a crossfire.”

Rami Abdurrahman of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for the Human Rights said the government freed 150 women prisoners and three children in exchange for the nuns. His account was confirmed by the head of Lebanon’s General Security directorate, Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, who has close ties to the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Last year, Ibrahim successfully negotiated the release of 11 Lebanese Shiite religious pilgrims who’d been held for more than a year by rebels in northern Syria.

The nuns were abducted Dec. 3 when Syrian rebels took control of the Syrian town of Maaloula, the home of several monasteries and early Christian religious sites. A rebel group fighting in the area that called itself the Free Brigades of Qalamoun said at the time that the nuns had been taken “for their own protection.”

The nuns were then transferred to the custody of the Nusra Front in Yabroud, which described the women as “guests” who would be exchanged for women prisoners held by the Syrian government. A series of escalating demands followed, including the condition that Syria and Lebanon release all of their Islamist prisoners.

But it was the advance of pro-government forces that really moved the negotiations to a close, the Lebanese official said.

“Nusra knew they would never hurt these nuns and that their deaths by accident would be a disaster, so they opened negotiations through Qatari intelligence to get women and children released and a ransom for the original kidnappers,” he said.