How Maloula Nuns Regained Freedom ~ What had preceded the happy conclusion?
Three different parties negotiated with Al-Nusra Front emir in Qalamoun, Abu Azzam al-Kuwaiti, in his headquarters in Yabroud over releasing the kidnapped nuns from Maloula before reaching the final deal on Sunday, the local daily Assafir reported Monday.
However, what had preceded the happy conclusion?
Publishing the full story behind the nuns’ release, Assafir newspaper said that in the wake of the kidnapping, two tracks of negotiation started on the basis that the nuns were not hostages but guests who were to be freed easily, just like the Syrian opposition figures used to echo in order to cover up the kidnapping politically.
“Before Qatar joined negotiations in the first weeks of the kidnapping, and during the second assault on Maaloula on December 2, 2013, Abu Azzam al-Kuwaiti (deputy of Abu Malik al-Tali, Al-Nusra Front emir in Qalamoun) restored the kidnapped group from the first kidnapper and the previous smuggler between Lebanon and Syria, Methqal Hamama who is one of the leaders in the so-called Sarkha Brigades,” Assafir narrated.
“In the beginning, the kidnappers called the United Nations office in Damascus. Yet, following a Skype-call between the ambassador Mokhtar Lamani, head of UN bureau, and al-Kuwaiti, Lamani refused to move to Yabroud and to negotiate with al-Nusra Front directly as the UN urged him not to communicate directly with the black-listed front,” it said.
Another track of negotiation kicked off in parallel with the first, when the Yabroudi businessman, George Hassoani, played a prominent role. He wasn’t a real mediator, but as a figure close to the Syrian government, he used to transfer the exchanged offers in coordination with the Lebanese Major-General Abbas Ibrahim.
Sometimes, and in order to gain time, Hassoani used to restore things to their proper framework when dealing with the kidnappers and replying to the permanent negotiator, Abu Azzam al-Kuwaiti , who did not take off his explosives belt while talking to Hassoani via Skype.
During negotiations , the kidnappers and the hostages moved to a residence home of Hassoani in Yabroud , which Al-Nusra Front had confiscated during his absence. The businessman paid the costs of the kidnappers throughout their stay in his three-floor home in order to improve the nuns’ conditions and facilitate a means to communicate with them (the kidnapped nuns appeared twice within three months in televised videos).
The kidnappers repeatedly echoed that they were not looking for a ransom, but for a swap deal to release the detained women in the Syrian prisons. At the beginning, they presented hundreds of names, but decreased the number to 138 arrested women with a condition that the Syrian government should set free the Iraqi Saja Hamid al-Dulaimi, wife of one of al-Qaeda Iraqi leaders, along with her three children.
Syrian government refused the condition since Dulaimi doesn’t hold the Syrian nationality, and stressed that the government does not have any kind of information about 66 names of the 138 submitted, in addition to that 10 of them had been freed previously.
Demanding the release of Dulaimi convinced those who were following negotiations that Kuwaiti was only a representative, and that true negotiators were somewhere else, because Kuwaiti was not able to answer the offers at the moment they were made.
Later, it was unfolded that he was nothing more than an intermediary in the negotiation process, which was controlled by other parties in al-Nusra Front and remotely directed by Abu Mohammad al-Golani, al-Nusra emir in the Levant.
Syrian track in the negotiations stalled earlier this year, and the Qatari channel has been activated in coordination with General Ibrahim. During the last month, Qatari envoys visited the area around Arsal mountains in North Lebanon, and began to speak directly to the kidnappers, but without achieving the slightest progress. The kidnappers provided Ibrahim with a list of the detained Syrian women that included no less than a thousand name, but the Syrian authorities neither agreed to negotiate it nor to consider it serious.
It was striking that the list included about 150 names of the “Islamists” detained in Roumieh prison in Lebanon, most of whom are of non-Lebanese nationalities. Ibrahim’s position was firm refusing the release of any of Roumieh prisoners.
A Syrian official said that negotiations have been revived a few days ago, following important ground developments in Yabroud amid fierce battles in Qalamoun and the dispersion of militant groups which include ten thousand fighters on all fronts, and after the first kidnapper, Mithqal Hamama was killed in one of the Syrian army ambushes in the region.
A week ago, the kidnappers decided to leave the house of George Hassoani in Yabroud as the army was approaching it, along with the fall of strategic hills around Rima Farms on Yabroud outskirts. At this point, the detained nuns were distributed to a number of sites in Yabroud.
Here, the nuns’ file appeared strongly to be bartered for what is beyond the ransom. Two days earlier, Abu Yazan, commander of the so-called ‘Ghorabaa Brigade’ in Qalamoun, called again a mediator in the Qatari channel and asked him to accelerate the completion of the deal, on condition to get 16 million dollars and the release of all the names mentioned in the list, adding again Saja al-Dulaimi, her three Iraqi children and her husband.
Abu Yazn also opened the security and military files, demanding a cease-fire around Yabroud and a halt of shelling against it. He also called for securing safe corridors for 1500 gunmen from Yabroud to Rankous and Arsal, but this condition has been flatly refused.
According to a Syrian source, the Qataris paid the ransom, and that the Syrian authorities had agreed to release detainees, but the security and military files have been entirely ruled out of any negotiations, always according to the Lebanese daily Assafir.
Information Minister, al-Zoubi: “No direct or indirect Syrian-Qatari contacts made to free St. Thecla Convent nuns”
Information Minister, Omran al-Zoubi, stressed that the true number of the persons who were released in turn for freeing the nuns is 25, and they are all from the persons whose hands have not got stained with the blood of the Syrian people.
In an interview to the Syrian TV, al-Zoubi said that the process of freeing the nuns was accomplished without any direct or indirect Syrian-Qatari contacts, and everything said about that is not true; rather it is an attempt to promote some ideas, poison the atmosphere and provoke the public opinion.
He added that the process of freeing the nuns would not have happened without the enormous efforts exerted by the authorities concerned in Syria based on the directions of President Bashar al-Assad.
He said, “Any talks that a single person who was released has left Syria is untrue; they had options, and they chose to go back to their families as they considered the Syrian leadership’s response to this issue is in itself a guarantee enough for them to remain in Syria.”
The minister congratulated the Syrian people on the freedom of the nuns who were abducted by the armed terrorist groups.
He clarified that all abducted Syrians from all Syrian provinces are equal in their position, roles, and duties before the amity of President al-Assad to his people as he is personally interested in this issue.
Al-Zoubi added that the Syrian leadership is interested in every abducted Syrian citizen and will search for every person who has gone missing as ultimate happiness will never be achieved unless security and stability are restored to Syria.
He noted that President al-Assad gave directions to all authorities concerned to seriously work in all directions to settle the issue of the abducted persons and free them.
The released nuns of St. Thecla Convent, who had been held hostage by armed terrorist groups, arrived Monday at dawn in Damascus amid popular and religious reception.
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