DAMASCUS, Nov 8, (Agencies): Syria said Thursday it had freed all 19 remaining Druze women and children abducted in July by the Islamic State group from the southern province of Sweida. Relatives gathered in their home region to greet those released after over three months of gruelling captivity during which at least two hostages were killed.
State media said the mass liberation was the result of a military operation but other sources insisted the 15-week hostage ordeal was ended thanks to a prisoner swap agreement. The army “clashed directly with the IS terrorist organisation, which had abducted women and children from the Sweida province”, state news agency SANA said. Government troops “were able to liberate all the 19 hostages … and kill the terrorist kidnappers”, it added.
Syrian television broadcast images of veiled women, boys and at least one girl surrounded by men in military uniforms near a white pick-up truck in a desert landscape. It said the images were broadcast from the desert near the ancient city of Palmyra in the centre of the country.
In Sweida, Jawdat Abu Omar was in his car rushing to the provincial capital to see his wife, eight-year-old daughter Shahad and 13-year-old son Qusay. “I can’t even describe how I’m feeling. I’ve never felt this happy in my life,” he told AFP over the phone. “We’ll be waiting for them,” he said. IS jihadists abducted around 30 people — mostly women and children — from Sweida in late July during the deadliest attack on Syria’s Druze community of the seven-year civil war.
Nour Radwan, a journalist based in Sweida, confirmed the liberation but said the women and children were freed in a prisoner exchange deal. “The freeing of the remaining hostages came as part of a prisoner swap deal, and today was the second stage of that deal,” he told AFP.
Two women and four children were released last month in a first step of the same agreement that also saw women and children related to IS fighters freed from regime jails, he said. “The agreement provides for swapping those who were abducted for detained IS relatives in Syrian government jails,” he said.
“A first step saw the Syrian government free 25 detainees including 17 women and eight children related to IS,” Radwan added. The Druze community had been hoping for the return of 20 hostages, Radwan said. “IS told the family of one of the female hostages that they had killed her but did not send any proof,” he said. “We’re waiting for them to arrive in Sweida. If there are 19 of them then it means she really was killed,” he said.
IS executed a 19-year-old male student among the hostages in August and then a 25-year-old woman in early October. The jihadists said a 65-year-old woman being held by the group also died from illness. In the July 25 attack, IS killed more than 250 people, most of them civilians, in a wave of suicide bombings, shootings and stabbings across Sweida province.
Regime forces have since pressed a deadly battle against the jihadist group on the volcanic plateau of Tulul al-Safa in the east of the province. Syria’s grinding civil war has claimed more than 360,000 lives since it started with the the bloody repression of antigovernment protests in 2011. Sweida province is the heartland of the country’s Druze minority, which made up roughly three percent of Syria’s pre-war population — or around 700,000 people.
Followers of a secretive offshoot of Islam, the Druze are considered heretics by the Sunni extremists of IS. Syrian opposition activists and paramedics are reporting that two blasts in rebel-held parts of northern Syria have inflicted casualties.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the fist explosion occurred in the northern town of Azaz wounding six children while the opposition’s Syrian Civil Defense said four were wounded including three children.
The observatory and other opposition activists reported another blast in the town of Jinderis saying a bomb went off outside an office of the Turkey-backed Failaq al-Sham rebel group killing three fighters and wounding seven. Azaz and Jeideris are controlled by Turkey-backed opposition fighters.
The two towns were once controlled by Kurdish fighters opposed to Turkey. Explosions in rebel-held parts of northern Syria are not uncommon and have killed and wounded dozens in recent months.