Syrian rebel group demands hostage swap for abducted nuns: paper

BEIRUT Fri Dec 6, 2013 5:42am EST

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BEIRUT (Reuters) - A Syrian rebel group calling itself "Free Qalamoun" has claimed the kidnapping of 12 nuns and said it wants to trade them for a thousand female detainees held by the government, a pan-Arab newspaper reported on Friday.

Rebel spokesman Mohannad Abu al-Fidaa told Asharq al-Awsat that the nuns were safe but "will not be released until several demands have been implemented, most importantly, the release of 1,000 Syrian women held in regime prisons".

Reuters could not independently confirm the report.

An official at the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Damascus said the nuns were safe but would not comment on which group had taken them.

Syria's Christian minority have generally tried to stay on the sidelines of the sectarian conflict pitting majority Sunni Muslims against the Alawite minority. Many Christians fear the rise of hardline Islamist groups.

Islamist fighters who captured the Christian village of Maaloula north of Damascus moved the nuns from the Greek Orthodox monastery of Mar Thecla to the nearby town of Yabrud on Monday, according to the Vatican envoy to Syria, Mario Zenari.

The militants took the ancient quarter of Maaloula on Monday after heavy fighting with President Bashar al-Assad's forces in the Qalamoun region near the Lebanese border.

The fighting, which pits al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front fighters and other rebels against Assad's forces, is part of a wider struggle for control of the Damascus-Homs highway in central Syria.

(Reporting by Oliver Holmes; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

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