BEIRUT: Lebanon celebrated Tuesday the release of 16 members of its security forces who had been held hostage by the al-Qaida affiliated Nusra Front since August 2014.
The release of the servicemen in exchange for an unspecified number of Islamist prisoners detained by Lebanon came after lengthy negotiations mediated by Qatar.
A former wife of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was among the prisoners reportedly set free by Lebanese authorities.
The swap deal took place on the edge of the northern eastern border town of Arsal where armed Nusra Front militants brought the captive troops in three pickup trucks and handed them over to Lebanese authorities who were waiting along with Red Cross vehicles. General Security Chief Major General Abbas Ibrahim oversaw the exchange.
Earlier in the day, the Nursa Front handed over the body of a slain Lebanese army soldier, one of four captives that have been killed by Islamist militants in the 16-month long hostage crisis.
In August 2014, militants from the Nusra Front and the Islamic State briefly overran the town of Arsal, capturing over 40 Lebanese army soldiers and Internal Security Forces members.
Including the 16 servicemen released on Tuesday, 29 have been set free so far while nine are still being held hostage by the Islamic State.
A few hours after their release, the servicemen arrived to the Grand Serail where Prime Minister Tamam Salam was waiting to greet them along with their families.
Earlier in the day, the families of the captives gathered in Riad El Soleh Square in downtown Beirut to celebrate their sons' return. They were joined by Health Minister Wael Abou Faour, who noted that the Lebanese government will pursue efforts to release nine soldiers still detained by the Islamic state.
"[The Lebanese government] will pursue efforts until those detained by the Islamic state are released," Abou Faour said.
The swap deal with the Nusra Front was expected on Sunday but suffered a setback after the Al-Qaida affiliated group made new demands, delaying the exchange to Tuesday.
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