"Islamic State" has released a group of Assyrian Christians kidnapped by its militants late last month. Meanwhile, rebels in the northern city of Aleppo rejected a peace proposal by the UN's envoy to the country.
An official with the Assyrian Democratic Organization said the group of 19 people - 16 men and three women - had arrived at a church in the city of Hassakeh after they were freed by "Islamic State" (IS) militants.
The 19 were among more than 200 people abducted when IS fighters raided a cluster of villages on the Khabur River. Reports of how many people were captured in total vary from 220 to 260.
The official, Bashir Saedi, said all of those released had been around the age of 50 or older. They had traveled by bus from the IS-held town of Shaddadeh, south of Hassakeh.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said members of the freed group had been cleared by IS-established religious courts, although it was unclear what the charges had been. The Observatory said it believed more Christians would be released as talks continued between tribal leaders and members of the jihadi group.
"This is the first batch of the 220 Assyrians abducted by the Islamic State organization on February 23," Rami Abdel-Rahman, the head of the Observatory, told the DPA news agency.
Aleppo has been drastically damaged, as this US picture - showing the old town before and after - indicates
The Assyrians follow an ancient Eastern Christian tradition, speaking a form of Aramaic - the language that many Christian historians believe was spoken by Jesus.
Aleppo 'freeze' as first step
The UN's envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, on Sunday visited a church near the Syrian capital, in a show of solidarity with the country's Christians. De Mistura was in Syria to promote a temporary ceasefire in Aleppo.
The "freeze" in fighting in the northern city is intended to be a first step towards a wider easing of hostilities. De Mistura has already secured a commitment from the Syrian government to suspend airstrikes and artillery shelling in Aleppo for six weeks, but still requires agreement from the armed opposition. The rebel political and military leadership in Aleppo on Sunday rejected the proposal.
"We refuse to meet with Mr. Staffan de Mistura, if it is not on the basis of a comprehensive solution to Syria's drama through the exit of (President) Bashar al-Assad and his chief of staff, and the prosecution of war criminals," Aleppo's revolutionary council said in a statement.
Once Syria's commercial hub - and the country's largest city - Aleppo has been devastated by fighting that began locally in mid-2012. The city is now split between rebels and forces loyal to Assad. Some 220,000 people have been killed in Syria since the violence initially began in March 2011.
rc/gsw (AP, AFP, dpa, Reuters)