BEIRUT: Daesh has released six of 27 Druze hostages it seized during a deadly July attack in Syria’s Sweida province in exchange for a prisoner swap and a $27 million ransom, a monitor said Saturday.
The extremist group abducted around 30 people — mostly women and children — from Sweida in late July during the deadliest attack on Syria’s Druze community of the seven-year civil war.
Families of the hostages led a series of protests outside government offices in Sweida earlier this month to demand more be done to secure their release.
“Two women and four children from the province of Sweida were released last night,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group.
He added that the releases were the “first wave” and part of an agreement sealed with the Syrian government to exchange all the hostages for “60 Daesh prisoners held by the regime and a ransom of $27 million.”
Further hostage releases were expected “in the next few days or hours,” he added.
During the coordinated assaults on July 25, Daesh carried out suicide bombings, shootings and stabbings that left more than 250 people dead across the southwestern province, most of them civilians.
Sweida province is the heartland of the country’s Druze minority, which made up around three percent of Syria’s pre-war population — or around 700,000 people.
Daesh executed a 19-year-old male student among the captives in August and then a 25-year-old female captive in early October. The group said a 65-year-old female captive also died from illness.
Negotiations between the government’s Russian ally and the extremists for the release of the captives had stalled. But the latest round of talks appeared to have paid off — albeit it with a stiff price.
The Observatory said Daesh had demanded $1 million per hostage, the release of some extremists’ wives and the halting of an offensive against them in Sweida.
Government forces have battled Daesh in the volcanic plateau of Tulul al-Safa in the east of the province since the July attack.
Abdel Rahman said the Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-led alliance that controls swathes of the north and northeast with the support of a US-led coalition, “should also release some Daesh detainees” but he did not specify the number.
There was no immediate comment from the SDF, which has been taking heavy casualties fighting Daesh in its last pocket of control in eastern Syria around the Euphrates valley town of Hajin.
On September 10, the group launched a major assault on the pocket where they estimate some 3,000 extremists are holed up. Hundreds of extremists have been killed, but at the cost of scores of SDF fighters.
Syria’s grinding civil war has claimed more than 360,000 lives since it erupted with the bloody repression of anti-government protests in 2011.
A caliphate which Daesh proclaimed across large swathes of Syria and neighboring Iraq in 2014 has crumbled in the face of multiple offensives against the extremists but they remain a potent force.