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Syria's al-Qaeda branch Nusra Front to swap Lebanese soldiers for prisoners

Syria's al-Qaeda branch has freed a group of Lebanese soldiers held captive since August 2014 as part of a swap deal.

In exchange, Lebanon expected to release former wife of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi

Relatives of Lebanese security personnel who were captured in Arsal by the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, react on Tuesday as they celebrate inside a tent that was erected last year during an open-ended sit-in near the government palace in downtown Beirut. (Jamal Saidi/Reuters)

Syria's al-Qaeda 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 of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) 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 neighbouring Syria.

The al-Qaeda 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-Qaeda 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 al-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.

ISIS believed to have other soldiers

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.

A Lebanese Red Cross ambulance on Tuesday carries the body of Mohammed Hamiyya, a Lebanese soldier executed last year by Al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate Al-Nusra Front, in the village of Labweh in the Bekaa Valley. (AFP/Getty Images)
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 ISIS leader 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 ISIS abducted 29 soldiers and policemen in Arsal last year when they briefly overran the town. Four have been killed in captivity while ISIS has refused to negotiate on the nine captives it holds.

Earlier, according to a Reuters report, the body of one of the soldiers killed was handed over to the Red Cross and the Lebanese security agency, General Security, the state news agency reported, A security source said the return of the body of Mohamed Hamiyya was the first step in the deal. The National News Agency said Hamieh's body was handed over as a result of the negotiations.

With files from Reuters

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