Maalula Nuns Freed after Hours of Delay for Logistical Reasons

A group of nuns abducted from the Syrian town of Maalula in December were released on Sunday evening and handed over to a Lebanese General Security delegation in the outskirts of the Bekaa border town of Arsal.

"The Maalula nuns have been freed and they are now in our custody," General Security chief Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim told LBCI television.

Lebanon's National News Agency also confirmed that "the Maalula nuns have become in the custody of Lebanese General Security."

"The General Security convoy that is carrying the freed Maalula nuns has left Arsal towards the international highway that leads to the al-Masnaa border crossing" between Lebanon and Syria, NNA said.

Ibrahim later appeared at the Syrian border post of Jdeidet Yabous where the nuns were supposed to arrive.

"The nuns will arrive here in an hour," he told reporters.

Earlier on Sunday, Ibrahim confirmed that the nuns would be released within hours after the process was “delayed by logistical obstacles related to the region's geography.”

For his part, Qatar's charges d'affaires in Beirut Ali al-Maliki confirmed to Al-Jazeera TV that the nuns would be released but noted that the issue "will take some time and maybe hours."

"Negotiations have resumed between Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim and the abductors of the Maalula nuns after having bogged down for unclear reasons," al-Jadeed television said earlier in the day.

LBCI said that after having left the outskirts of the Bekaa border town of Arsal, a Lebanese General Security delegation returned to the town to prepare for receiving the nuns.

"The General Security convoy has returned to the Aqabat al-Jurd area in Arsal," MTV said.

Earlier, Lebanon's National News Agency said a large convoy consisting of around 30 vehicles had arrived in the al-Rahweh area in Arsal's outskirts to receive the nuns.

It later reported that “a new convoy consisting of 3 cars has crossed the army checkpoint at Arsal's entrance and headed to the point where the first convoy is waiting to pick up the Maalula nuns."

NNA had reported that Qatar's intelligence chief and a Lebanese General Security team crossed into Syria from Arsal to receive the nuns.

“Qatari intelligence chief Ghanim al-Kubaisi and a General Security delegation have crossed Arsal towards the Syrian border ahead of the release of the Maalula nuns,” NNA said.

Meanwhile, local and regional TV networks aired footage showing heavy presence by General Security agents and reporters at the al-Masnaa border crossing between Lebanon and Syria.

A number of Christian and Muslim clergymen were also spotted in the border area of Jdeidet Yabous.

MTV had reported that it was not clear whether the nuns' convoy would take the Yabrud-Arsal-Masnaa route or the road from Yabrud towards Syria's al-Zabadani and Damascus ahead of traveling towards al-Masnaa.

The Qatar-based, pan-Arab Al-Jazeera TV had earlier reported that "the process of releasing the nuns has started."

In remarks to LBCI television, Nouhad al-Jabr, sister of abducted nun Mariam al-Jabr, said: "The lawyer Robert al-Abyad called me an hour ago and asked me to head to al-Masnaa to receive my sister."

Several reporters had said the process would take several hours due to "the rugged road between Yabrud and Arsal" or even the long road from Yabrud to Damascus.

Meanwhile, Voice of Lebanon radio (100.5) said "the Bekaa is witnessing intensive movements by security convoys in preparation for the release of the Maalula nuns."

Sky News Arabia said the deal involves the release of 153 detainees from the prisons of the Syrian regime. Other reports said a number of women prisoners will be freed.

"A number of Syrian women prisoners have arrived at a location facing Jdeidet Yabous on the Lebanese border and they will enter Lebanon," Al-Jazeera reported.

Earlier on Sunday, the head of the Greek Orthodox Council Robert Abyad announced that the nuns were expected to be released later during the day.

“We thank all the forces that helped ensure their release,” he said.

Qatar's intelligence chief al-Kubaisi had arrived in Lebanon from Istanbul in order to follow up on the case, said NNA.

Moreover, Maj. Gen. Ibrahim also returned to Lebanon from Syria in order to follow up on the release.

He held talks with President Michel Suleiman to that end, reported NNA.

Head of the Mar Yaacoub monastery in Syria, Sister Agnes, told VDL that the Syrian Information Ministry had requested that journalists head to the Lebanese-Syrian border “because a surprise awaits them there.”

The nuns, from both Syria and Lebanon, were kidnapped from a convent in Maalula in December, as regime and rebel forces battled for control in the surrounding Qalamoun region.

They were moved to Yabrud, a rebel stronghold that has become the last opposition holdout in the Qalamun region and now at the center of a fierce regime campaign.

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