Women’s ululation greeted 16 Lebanese soldiers and policemen as they returned to Beirut on Tuesday after being freed by Al Qaeda’s Syrian branch in exchange for captive militants.
The security personnel were met by family, friends and supporters at the Grand Seraille, the Lebanese government’s seat of power, more than a year after they were captured by fighters from Islamic State and the Nusra Front.
They were freed as part of a Qatari-mediated swap with the Nusra Front, Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate. Thirteen militants were released in exchange, including five women -- one of them the wife or former wife of Islamic State’s leader, Abu Bakr Baghdadi.
Nine Lebanese soldiers remain in the hands of Islamic State and were not part of the agreement.
The Lebanese security personnel were taken captive in August 2014 during fighting in Arsal, a Lebanese town about 20 miles from the Syrian border. The deal for their release included the delivery of humanitarian aid and, according to Syrian opposition activists on social media, the establishment of a field hospital in Arsal.
The exchange began early in the morning with the handover of the body of Mohammad Haniyeh, one of four soldiers killed while imprisoned by Islamic State, the Lebanese National News Agency reported.
Video taken by the Qatar-based news network Al Jazeera showed Nusra Front fighters shouting “God is great” and waving the group’s black flags atop pickup trucks before handing the security personnel to members of the Lebanese Red Cross in the area of Wadi Hamid near the Syrian border.
The freed captives were then taken to the headquarters of the Lebanese army’s 8th Brigade in the nearby town of Labweh before being spirited away to Beirut in a convoy of black-tinted, armored SUVs.
The released militants included Saja Dulaimi, variously described as the wife or ex-wife of Baghdadi.
In an interview with Al Jazeera, Dulaimi denied having any current connection with the Islamic State leader.
“I’m his divorcee for six or seven years,” she said, her eyes peeking above a cream-colored Islamic face covering as her daughter fidgeted on the car seat near her.
Dulaimi would not give her ultimate destination.
Lebanese Prime Minister Tammam Salam was on hand in the Grand Seraille to greet the freed security personnel.
“We are successful and have crossed through to the freedom, dignity and pride of Lebanon,” he said in a speech, according to the National News Agency.
Salam gave his condolences to the families of the Lebanese who were killed in Arsal or during captivity but exhorted the country to “trust your state, trust your government” to help free remaining prisoners.
Some of the servicemen emerged with reddened eyes, repeating “I missed you, I missed you” as they embraced crying family members.
But others were beaming, shaking hands of people eager to greet them.
“I’m flying with happiness, how can I be sad right now?” said Lamea Mzahem, a baby-faced policeman surrounded by friends cheering around him with bouquets.
“It was hard, of course, being imprisoned for this long,” Mzahem said, “but now we’re finally free.”
Bulos is a special correspondent.