Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate on Tuesday freed 16 Lebanese soldiers and police it had held for more than a year in exchange for the release of prisoners and delivery of aid.
The exchange brought a partial end to a hostage crisis that has haunted Lebanon since militants groups overran the eastern town of Arsal on the Syrian border in August 2014.
Another nine soldiers and policemen remain in the hands of the Islamic State group, with uncertainty over whether negotiations to free them can succeed.
The 16 hostages — 13 policemen and three soldiers — were transferred from territory held by al Qaeda affiliate al Nusra Front on the mountainous border with Syria by Lebanon’s Red Cross.
Television footage showed the men, sporting long beards and hair in some cases, boarding four Red Cross vehicles before being driven to an army checkpoint.
Around them, armed and masked al Nusra fighters waved the group’s black flag and chanted slogans. In a statement, Lebanon’s General Security service confirmed the 16 had been released and pledged “no efforts will be spared to secure the return of those held by Daesh,” using the Arabic acronym for IS.
In exchange for the hostages, Lebanon freed 13 prisoners, among them Saja al-Dulaimi, the former wife of IS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and handed over several trucks of humanitarian aid.
A security source said 10 of the prisoners had chosen not to be transferred to al Nusra and would be returned to Beirut.