Syria's al-Qaida branch frees Lebanese soldiers held captive since 2014 as part of swap deal

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BEIRUT — Syria's al-Qaida branch was releasing on Tuesday a group of Lebanese soldiers and policemen held captive since August 2014 as part of a swap deal brokered by Qatar that included Lebanon setting free an unspecified number of prisoners wanted by the militant group.

The prisoners given up by Beirut included a former wife of the Islamic State group's leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, according to a senior Lebanese security official. The woman was arrested in Lebanon last year.

The release caps a long ordeal and drama over the fate of the Lebanese troops that has shaken the tiny Mediterranean country, which has seen innumerable spillovers from the civil war in neighboring Syria.

The al-Qaida group, known as Nusra Front, released the 16 soldiers and policemen in the town of Arsal along the Lebanese-Syrian border where they were abducted last year.

The militants brought the 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. The exchange was being delayed, however, and an unnamed Nusra Front member said the deal was being held up pending the entry of humanitarian aid to Arsal.

Masked Nusra Front fighters waving black al-Qaida flags were deployed in the area, including several who stood on the roof of a building overlooking the area.

Pan-Arab satellite channel Al-Jazeera, funded by the Qatari government and based in Doha, said the tiny country had mediated the deal. The Gulf nation, a strong supporter of insurgents fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad, has a history of mediating prisoners' exchanges in the Middle East.

Al-Jazeera, along with the Lebanese local MTV station, broadcast the release.

"My happiness is beyond description," said a Lebanese policeman shortly after he was brought to the point where the exchange will take place on the edge of Arsal.

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.

Meanwhile, 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.

Details on the prisoners to be released as part of the secret deal were not immediately available.

A senior Lebanese security official said the swap deal includes Saja al-Dulaimi, a former wife of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The official spoke 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.

Another official, also speaking on condition of anonymity under regulations, said the Nusra Front captives were being released in exchange for 13 prisoners, including five women.

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 covered with a face veil, 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. She 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 writer Jon Gambrell in Dubai and Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report.

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