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Lebanon Coordinates Prisoner Swap For Soldiers Held By Al-Qaida-Linked Group

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

An al-Qaida affiliate in Syria had been holding 16 Lebanese soldiers hostage for more than a year. Today, they were released back to Lebanon after protracted negotiations and a prisoner exchange. NPR's Alice Fordham was there as they were reunited with their families.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: I meet Hanin Derani waiting for one of the newly freed men, her cousin Sleiman, outside the imposing building where he's being greeted by the Lebanese prime minister.

HANIN DERANI: No words can express our feelings now.

FORDHAM: She's a student in immaculate makeup and a silky emerald green headscarf. She's waited 16 months to see her cousin, who was among around 40 men captured last year.

H. DERANI: (Through interpreter) Lebanon is like a big family. Everyone was tired. Everyone was worried. Everyone was feeling with what was happening.

(CHEERING)

FORDHAM: The freed soldiers appear through an archway, one by one, in a hail of petals torn from bouquets by their ecstatic families.

Shoulders heaving, a tearful Sleiman Derani clasps a male cousin.

SLEIMAN DERANI: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: He tells me captivity was hard, especially at the beginning. He wasn't harmed but says the psychological torment was worse than physical pain.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in foreign language).

FORDHAM: The men's capture and the circumstances of their release say much about how the bloody affairs of the rest of the Middle East impact on the little country of Lebanon. The men were first taken while fighting a short-lived alliance of the al-Qaida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS, which had spilled over from neighboring Syria and taken Lebanese territory.

MAHER FAYAD: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: Another released soldier, Maher Fayad, thanks the country of Qatar, which played a key role in the months of negotiations because it has close links to Syrian extremists. Among 13 militant prisoners released in exchange for the soldiers, the most prominent was Saja al-Dulaimi, an Iraqi woman once married to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Of those soldiers captured last year, most have now been released, a few were killed and about nine are believed to be in the hands of ISIS, who security officials say have refused to negotiate. Alice Fordham, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.