Syria's Al-Qaeda offers to swop soldiers for female captives

BEIRUT • Al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate has offered to release three Lebanese soldiers in exchange for a former wife of the leader of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and four other female prisoners.

Al-Nusra Front, which along with ISIS has held 25 Lebanese soldiers and policemen hostage for almost a year, issued the offer in a statement aired on Lebanon's MTV television last Saturday night.

"If five of our sisters leave prison... we will hand over three soldiers in exchange," said Abu Malek al-Shami, Al-Nusra's "emir", in the Syrian region of Qalamun bordering Lebanon. Among the five hostages named was Saja al-Dulaimi, who was arrested in Lebanon last December and is a former wife of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Dulaimi reportedly belongs to a tribe that straddles Syria and Iraq, and she is believed to have been closer to Al-Nusra than her former husband's rival militants.

Shami's face was not shown in the interview, which MTV conducted as part of an arranged visit by family members to loved ones held by Al-Nusra in what it called "a cave in the Qalamun mountains".

MTV showed footage of the tearful reunion between parents, spouses and children of the hostages.

The bearded hostages appeared to be in healthy condition.

Sixteen of the 25 Lebanese soldiers and policemen taken hostage near the border with Syria last August are in the hands of Al-Nusra.

The rest are held by ISIS.

Since their capture, Al-Nusra and ISIS have repeatedly made demands for the soldiers' release, seeking the release of Islamist prisoners or the withdrawal of Lebanon's Hizbollah movement from the Syrian conflict.

The Iran-backed Shi'ite militia is fighting alongside forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad in the civil war that has claimed more than 230,000 lives since it erupted in 2011.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 20, 2015, with the headline 'Syria's Al-Qaeda offers to swop soldiers for female captives'. Print Edition | Subscribe