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Syrian rebels release hostage nuns in exchange for prisoners

A group of nuns held by Syrian rebels since December has been set free. The Greek Orthodox nuns were released as part of a rare prisoner exchange deal between the rebels and Syria's government.

The women, 13 nuns and three maids, reportedly appeared exhausted as they arrived in the Syrian town of Jdeidet Yabous near the Lebanese border early on Monday. A journalist at the scene for news agency AFP said one of the nuns had to be carried out of the vehicle she was in.

"We arrived late, and we arrived tired," said Mother Superior Pelagia Sayaf, the head of the Maaloula convent.

The nuns' three months of captivity at the hands of

Syrian rebels

, including members of the Nusra Front, which has been linked to al Qaeda, began in early December after they were kidnapped from their convent when their historic Christian village north of Damascus was overrun by rebel fighters. They were held in the Syrian rebel town of Yabrud.

The freed nuns were transported in a convoy of 30 cars, taking a nine-hour long zig-zag route which crossed the Syrian and Lebanese borders.

The release of the nuns was in exchange for about 150 female prisoners held in jails run by the Syrian regime. The prisoner swap was mediated by

officials from Lebanon

and Qatar.

'Well treated'

The nuns, who worked in their convent's orphanage, were treated well during their imprisonment, according to Mother Superior Pelagia Sayaf.

"God did not leave us," Sayaf said. "The [Nusra] Front was good to us ... but we took off our crosses because we were in the wrong place to wear them."

However, the seizure of the nuns heightened fears within Syria's Christian minority that they were becoming targeted by extreme Islamist elements among the increasingly sectarian rebel groups fighting to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Syria has been in a state of civil war

for almost three years, with more than 140,000 people killed and millions displaced.

se/ccp (AP, AFP, Reuters, dpa)

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