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Al-Nusra Front demanding release of 500 militants in exchange for Maaloula nuns

Extremist grouping Jabhat al-Nusra, a branch of Al Qaida operating in Syria and Lebanon which is holding hostage a group of twelve nuns from the Syrian Christian town of Maaloula, demands a release of 500 of its militants in Syria and Lebanon in exchange for the nuns, the Lebanon-based Al Mayadeen satellite channel said Monday.

It said the extremists had made their demand known by the Syrian businessman George Haswani who acted as a mediator between the Syrian authorities and them.

Nuns and postulants from the Eastern Orthodox convent of St Thekla in Maaloula with Abbess Pelagea at the head are staying in Haswani's guarded private house near Yabrud for the second month running.

Yabrud, which is located 57 kilometers to the northwest of Damascus, is encircled by Syrian government troops but a military operation there has been suspended out of fears for the nuns' lives.

Al Mayadeen said the Jabhat al-Nusra units in that area take orders from a Saudi mercenary whose name is not known.

Al Jazeera in its turn aired footage from Yabrud, which showed a group of Maaloula nuns, most of them of senior age. It was recorded February 5 and did not have soundtrack.

It showed the militants clad in black outfits who were speaking to the nuns. The recording did not contain any demands on the part of the abductors.

Officials in Damascus did not comment on the Al Mayadeen information in any way.

In the meantime, reports said that another radical Islamic grouping had contacted the UN and Arab League joint special representative for Syria, Mokhtar Lamani, from Istanbul and asked for mediation in a deal on releasing the Greek Orthodox Metropolitan of Aleppo, Paul Yazigi, whom they were keeping captive.

Lamani told Al Mayadeen he had evidence that Metropolitan Paul was alive.

Lebanese news analysts believe pressure on the latter grouping was exerted by the Turkish authorities.

[Source: Itar Tass, Beirut, 11Feb14]

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