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Reports: 13 nuns freed by kidnappers in Syria

By Salma Abdelaziz and Ashley Fantz, CNN
March 10, 2014 -- Updated 1351 GMT (2151 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: The nuns are mobbed by crowds as they arrive in a Syrian-Lebanon border town
  • Nuns and workers kidnapped last year reportedly freed, pro-Syrian regime media say
  • Lebanese official to state news: Nuns freed in exchange for Syrian prisoners' release
  • Christians make up 10% of Syria's population; many back al-Assad, fear Islamist militants

(CNN) -- Thirteen nuns and three workers kidnapped in late November from a Greek Orthodox monastery in Syria were freed Sunday, a pro-Syrian government news network and Lebanese state media reported.

A convoy of around 30 vehicles picked up the nuns and workers in one part of Syria and took them into Lebanon, the country's National News Agency reported late Sunday. The convoy traveled through Lebanon to another border crossing into Syria, the hillside village of Jdaidet Yabous. There, the group will be met by Greek Orthodox church officials, who will welcome them back into Syria, Syrian state news agency SANA reported.

The convoy was at one point delayed several hours for "logistical reasons" but later resumed en route to Jdaidet Yabous, Public Security Director Gen. Abbas Ibrahim told NNA.

When they did arrive overnight, the nuns -- some smiling, some solemn and at least one of whom appeared to be being carried -- were mobbed by an enthusiastic crowd that included church officials.

People in Raqqa, Syria, stand where a Syrian government aircraft was shot down by ISIS militants on Tuesday, September 16. The United Nations estimates more than 190,000 people have been killed in Syria since an uprising in March 2011 spiraled into civil war. People in Raqqa, Syria, stand where a Syrian government aircraft was shot down by ISIS militants on Tuesday, September 16. The United Nations estimates more than 190,000 people have been killed in Syria since an uprising in March 2011 spiraled into civil war.
Syrian civil war in 2014
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Photos: Syrian civil war in 2014 Photos: Syrian civil war in 2014
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Ibrahim said that no money was paid to secure the release of the nuns, adding that it was part of a deal in exchange for 150 females that the Syrian government was holding.

Qatari intelligence chief Saadeh Kobeisi reportedly crossed deep into Syrian territory to obtain the release of the Syrian nuns. He crossed into Syria as part of a Lebanese Internal Security delegation, the state news agency said.

Senior Orthodox Bishop Lucas al-Khoury earlier Sunday spoke to pro-Syrian government Ikhbariya television. He stood on the Syrian side of the border hoping to greet the nuns and said the negotiations for their release took several months because the kidnappers "made false requests intended to stall the process."

The Greek Orthodox figure, who often speaks out on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government, added that the recent Syrian troop offensive on the opposition stronghold of Yabroud worked in favor of the nuns' release.

Days after the kidnapping, SANA reported that armed terrorists took the nuns, implying that rebels fighting to oust al-Assad were behind the attack.

The chief of an opposition group based in London told CNN he had confirmed that al-Nusra Front fighters abducted the nuns, but Rami Abdurrahman said the fighters did so to protect them from what the group believed would be an impending attack by Syrian government forces.

CNN could not confirm Abdurrahman's account of why the nuns were taken from the Monastery of Saint Tecla in the predominantly Christian village of Maaloula, about 40 miles west of Damascus. Abdurrahman leads the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, based in Great Britain.

The U.S. State Department has designated the al-Nusra Front a terrorist organization with links to al Qaeda.

Christians make up about 10% of the population of Syria, but Christianity has a rich history there.

Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River, and some people believe it was in a location now along a part of modern-day Syria. Some of the earliest relics were found there. And Maaloula, in the Qalamoun Mountains, is one of the last places where the ancient Aramaic that Jesus spoke is still the main language.

Many of Syria's Christians support the al-Assad government, fearing that an end to his presidency could lead to instability and an Islamist power grab.

Meanwhile, on Sunday four rescue workers who rushed to help survivors of a barrel bomb attack in the city of Aleppo became victims themselves when more of the crude explosive devices were dropped by government helicopters, according to the Aleppo Media Center, a communication outlet run by rebels fighting to oust al-Assad.

At least 14 are reported dead in that incident, the outlet said.

In another neighborhood Sunday, rescue workers recovered the bodies of a husband, wife and five children ranging in ages from 5 to 14, the outlet reported. A barrel bomb had apparently leveled their home, it said. The attack killed at least 10 people total and destroyed six residential buildings, the outlet reported.

The father of one child victim wept and flailed his arms against his body as he cried, "Where is my son, my Hamoudi? They buried them alive. Oh God, they buried them alive!" a video on YouTube shows.

READ: Al Qaeda branch in Syria issues ultimatum to splinter group

READ: UN Security Council passes Syria aid resolution

READ: CNN Exclusive: Videos show brutality of radical group ISIS in Syria

CNN's Saad Abedine and Greg Botelho contributed to this report.

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