The Lebanese army and Syria’s al-Nusra Front have conducted a long-awaited prisoner swap outside Lebanon’s border town of Arsal, where a group of Lebanese soldiers were kidnapped last year. The deal, brokered by Qatari mediators, entailed the release by al-Nusra Front of 16 Lebanese security officers – soldiers and policemen – in exchange for 13 prisoners, including five women, held by the Lebanese.
On Tuesday staff of the Lebanese Red Cross were present at the site of the exchange alongside the Lebanese army soldiers as al-Nusra Front fighters, sitting on the back of vehicles, celebrated the deal by waving the group’s flags. One of the freed soldiers told Al Jazeera: “We would like to thank al-Nusra Front for releasing us. We would like to thank everyone who took part in the negotiations that led to our release.”
At the initial stage of the exchange, al-Nusra Front handed over the body of Mohammed Hamieh, one of two soldiers killed by its fighters. The 16 Lebanese security officers – plus two soldiers who were killed in captivity – were kidnapped by al-Nusra Front during deadly clashes in August 2014 in Arsal. The prisoner exchange followed months of negotiations. Among the prisoners released by Lebanon are Jumana Hmayed, who was arrested for transporting “terrorists into Lebanon”, and Saja Dulaimi, former wife of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group.