BEIRUT – Syria's Al Qaeda branch on Tuesday released a group of Lebanese troops held captive for over a year as part of a Qatar-brokered swap that involved Lebanon setting free at least 11 prisoners wanted by the militants, including a former wife of the Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
The release caps Lebanon's ordeal over the fate of its soldiers while also providing the Al Qaeda branch known as the Nusra Front with new leverage as a group that can be negotiated with in Syria's ever-chaotic civil war.
The fate of the Lebanese troops has shaken the tiny Mediterranean country, which has seen innumerable spillovers from the civil war in neighboring Syria.
"My happiness is beyond description," said a Lebanese policeman, one of the 16 released on Tuesday, shortly after he was brought to the point where the exchange will take place on the edge of Arsal.
In Beirut, families and friends of the abducted soldiers and policemen who have held a months-long sit-in in downtown Beirut broke into a dance and cheered as news of the released reached them. Families were showered with rose petals and friends passed around sweets to the media and visitors who showed up to offer congratulations.
Earlier in the day, masked Nusra Front fighters brought the captive troops in three pickup trucks to a meeting point on the edge of the town, to be handed over to Lebanese authorities who were waiting along with Red Cross vehicles. The government had bused its 11 prisoners to the exchange point.
Militants waving black Al Qaeda flags fanned out across the area, with several who took positions on the roof of a building overlooking the location. The deal went ahead after trucks carrying humanitarian aid entered Arsal as part of the deal.
Pan-Arab satellite channel Al-Jazeera, funded by the Qatari government and based in Doha, said the tiny country had mediated the deal. The Gulf nation, a strong supporter of insurgents fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad, has a history of mediating prisoners' exchanges in the Middle East.
Several previous attempts to secure a deal with the Nusra Front had ended in failure. Frustrated relatives held protests, often blocking main roads with their bodies as a form of protests, to no avail.
Tuesday's exchange comes amid heightened diplomatic activity to end Syria's civil war, now in its fifth year. It reflects an attempt by the group to portray itself as a more moderate player, one that can be negotiated with at a time the West and Russia are trying to separate "terrorist" groups in Syria from opposition factions they can communicate with.
Al-Jazeera, along with the Lebanese local MTV station, broadcast the troops' release. The captives were seen sporting militant-style beards but appeared to be in good health.
Suleiman Dirani, one of those held captive, thanked "our brothers" from the Nusra Front for what he said was good treatment. "We are leaving here as we came, we are all in good health," he said.
Meanwhile, families and friends of the abducted soldiers and policemen who have held a months-long sit-in in downtown Beirut broke into a dance and cheered as news of the released reached them.
At least 11 prisoners in Lebanese jails, including five women, were released as part of the deal, according to a senior Lebanese security official.
The group included Saja al-Dulaimi, the 26-year-old former wife of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with regulations. Al-Dulaimi was detained in Lebanon last year after she crossed into the country illegally with her current husband using forged identity cards.
Al-Jazeera said 13 prisoners were handed over to Nusra Front. It was not immediately clear whether that number included two prisoners held by the Syrian government. Local media had reported the deal may include prisoners held in Syria.
Al-Dulaimi, who appeared in Lebanese court for a hearing last month, was seen along with her four children at the meeting point Tuesday.
"They say that I was the wife of al-Baghdadi. I don't know, we have been divorced for six or seven years," she told Al-Jazeera upon her arrival to the area controlled by the Nusra Front.
Asked what she plans to do after her release, al-Dulaimi, who had her face covered with a face veil, said she wanted to go live in Turkey.
She spoke from inside an SUV, holding in her arms her four-month-old son Youssef, who was born while she was in jail. Al-Baghdadi's biological daughter, Hajar, 7, was also in the car, sitting next to her mother. She looked into the camera and said "can I talk?"
The Nusra Front and the Islamic State group abducted 29 soldiers and policemen in Arsal last year when they briefly overran the town. Four have been killed in captivity while the Islamic State group has refused to negotiate on the nine captives it holds.