Syrian women freed in three-way prisoner exchange

Turkey and Qatar negotiate release of 62 female prisoners after Lebanese men and Turkish pilots freed

One of the nine Lebanese Shia pilgrims abducted by rebels in Syria is greeted upon arrival in Bir al-Abed in the southern suburbs of Beirut on Oct. 19, 2013, after being released in Turkey the previous day.
AFP/Getty Images

Syrian authorities have released 62 female detainees as part of a three-way international hostage exchange, sources said Thursday.

The release of the women was the main demand of kidnappers in northern Syria who had held nine Lebanese Shia men hostage for 17 months. Those hostages and two Turkish pilots abducted in Lebanon were freed last week under a deal negotiated by Turkey and Qatar.

The release of female detainees held in government jails formed part of that deal, though little information has emerged about the women prisoners now being released or when they were originally detained.

"We can expect more releases, but we have no confirmation that this will take place," said Al Jazeera's Hoda Abdel-Hamid, reporting from Lebanon. Abdel-Hamid said the deal has prompted a belief that many more deals between the Syrian government and the opposition might be forthcoming. 

Most of the women were released at the Masnaa crossing, near Lebanon. Many have since returned to their homes in Syria.

Among the released was a cancer patient who had been imprisoned twice before and whose husband was killed in Syria's nearly three-year-old conflict, said human-rights activist Sema Nassar, who added that many other women whose names were on a release list had yet to be set free from Adra prison in Damascus province.

“We do not know if more will be released today or later, or if that is it. We are waiting," another Syrian activist told Reuters on Wednesday, when the number of released was lower.

There has been no official comment in Damascus on the women detainees, nor has the government acknowledged having any role in the hostage exchange.

The exchange of prisoners between opposing factions in Syria was a rare moment of successful negotiation and comes as foreign backers of the armed opposition try to convince increasingly disjointed rebel groups to attend a peace conference slated for November.

Rebels have repeatedly asserted that they refuse to sit down for the so-called Geneva II conference unless the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is a precondition of ending the war, which has killed more than 115,000 people in two-and-a-half years.

Opposition activists also say that tens of thousands of people are being detained by the Syrian regime, many of them without trial. Rights groups say torture and ill-treatment are systematic in Syria's jails.

In May 2012, Syrian rebels kidnapped the nine Lebanese men freed in the prisoner exchange, accusing them of belonging to Hezbollah, whose members are fighting alongside Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces in Syria. The men's families say they were religious pilgrims who had been on their way home from visiting Shia shrines in Iran.

The Turkish pilots who also were released last week were abducted by relatives of the Lebanese hostages to put pressure on Turkey, which they believe holds influence with the opposition. Turkey hosts many opposition groups and has generally kept its border open to the rebels.

After months of deadlock, the deal to free the hostages was brokered in a new push by Turkey and Qatar, whose officials acted as mediators to the final agreement.

Refugee rescue

Footage also emerged Wednesday of the rescue of hundreds of Syrian refugees who say they were left to drown in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Malta.

Survivors said they were rescued when their boat was shot and sunk by Libyan traffickers following an argument about payment earlier this month. They were left stranded about 100 miles from the Maltese coast. 

Speaking from Valletta, Al Jazeera's Karl Stagno-Navarra said that the pictures were taken by the Maltese navy as they approached the almost 400 people who were on board a rickety fishing boat, which left the coast of Libya on Oct. 10.

“They were left stranded at sea, and there were many that couldn’t swim,” he said. “Amongst them were women and children, a number of whom perished at sea."

The navy estimates that about 200 people never made it to safety.

Stagno-Navarra said that Maltese authorities had taken in the survivors and were processing them as Syrian refugees, as they recognize the war in their country.

The conflict in Syria has forced more than 2 million refugees into countries like Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, and the U.N. estimates that a third of all Syrians have been displaced since the war began. The refugees, including more than 1 million children, place considerable strain on their host communities, and many countries are reluctant to accept them.

Al Jazeera with wire services

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