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Al-Nusra Front Returns Lebanese Soldiers in Swap

Lebanese policeman who was captured by al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front in Arsal, gets greeted by his family in Beirut, Dec. 1, 2015.

Thirteen Lebanese soldiers and three police officers held by the Jabhat al-Nusra militant group, al-Qaida's Syrian affiliate, were released Tuesday after resolution of a last-minute glitch that delayed the Qatar-brokered prisoner swap by 48 hours.

The exchange, in which Lebanese officials set free 13 prisoners, came 16 months after al-Nusra and Islamic State militants briefly overran the town of Arsal on Lebanon's eastern border with Syria after clashes with Lebanese troops. The militants were angered by the Lebanese detention of a Syrian believed to be an al-Nusra member.

The groups withdrew under a truce but took 30 hostages with them. Four of the hostages were subsequently executed by the two groups, including Mohammed Hammiya, whose body was turned over to Lebanese authorities on Tuesday morning in the first stage of the deal. A fifth died of wounds sustained in the Arsal clashes shortly after he was taken hostage.

According to reports by Reuters and The Washington Post, "a former wife of the Islamic State’s leader was released" in the Tuesday swap. "Lebanese authorities handed over Saja al-Dulaimi, an Iraqi who was briefly married to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the presumed head of the Islamic State."

Top Lebanese officials and families celebrated the release of their loved ones amid an outpouring of emotion at the government palace in central Beirut.

Despite the jubilation, the exchange also underlined the uncertainty over the fate of nine other servicemen who are still being held by the Islamic State group.

"[I and my colleagues, who] have worked to resolve this crisis, welcome Lebanon's sons back after the trials they and their families have endured," Prime Minister Tamam Salam was quoted as saying via translation, adding that Lebanon "celebrates its heroes with joy, and deplores the deaths of those who were killed in captivity."

FILE - Members of the al-Nusra Front man a checkpoint in Idlib.
FILE - Members of the al-Nusra Front man a checkpoint in Idlib.

The 16 Lebanese hostages appeared freshly shaven as they were released at the Syrian border. Earlier videos showed them sporting long beards.

Salam also thanked those who negotiated the prisoner release, including Qatar, government mediator Abbas Ibrahim and the Lebanese Red Cross.

Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi told journalists the "efforts of the last year and four months to solve the crisis appeared to jell in the last five days, as pragmatism prevailed.”

The U.S. State Department welcomed the release of the Lebanese soldiers. However, it said the U.S. position on the al-Nusra Front, which has been designated as a terrorist group since December 2012, remained unchanged.

Families embraced their newly released loved ones at a sit-in camp they have maintained over many months and are now preparing to dismantle.

The 13 prisoners Lebanon released included five women.

Another nine Lebanese soldiers are still being held by the Islamic State group.

Violence from Syria's civil war has spilled over into Lebanon multiple times since the conflict began in March 2011. The Lebanon-based militant group Hezbollah has also sent fighters into Syria to fight on behalf of President Bashar al-Assad's forces.

Some information for this report came from Reuters.