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Syrian rebels free kidnapped nuns

Syrian rebels have released a group of 13 Greek Orthodox nuns who have been held since December.

The fighters, including members of the al Qaida-linked Nusra Front, seized the nuns and three helpers from the Mar Takla convent when they overran the Christian village of Maaloula, north of Damascus, in December.

The nuns, who are believed to be mostly Syrian and Lebanese, worked in the convent's orphanage.

Their seizure raised fears in the minority Christian community that they were being targeted by extremists among the fighters seeking to oust President Bashar Assad.

The release of the nuns and three helpers was in exchange for Syrian authorities releasing dozens of female prisoners.

It was a rare successful prisoner exchange deal between the Syrian government and the rebels seeking to overthrow Assad.

But it is unlikely to soothe the fears of many Syrian Christians that their ancient minority is in danger should rebels come to power.

A convoy of 30 cars delivered the nuns to the Syrian town of Jdeidet Yabous, which lies close to the Lebanese border.

"We arrived late, and we arrived tired," said Mother Superior Pelagia Sayaf, the head of the Maaloula convent.

She said the nuns were treated well, although they did not feel comfortable wearing their crosses and crucifixes.

"God did not leave us. The (Nusra) Front was good to us ... but we took off our crosses because we were in the wrong place to wear them."

Approximately 150 female prisoners will be released in exchange for the nuns' freedom, said the head of Lebanon's General Security agency, General Abbas Ibrahim, who oversaw the deal.

He told Syrian television that the deal nearly collapsed at the last minute after rebels demanded more prisoners be released.

The nuns were held for at least part of their captivity in the rebel stronghold of Yabroud near the Lebanese border.

Syrian forces are currently waging a campaign to dislodge rebels from the town, which forms part of an opposition supply line into Lebanon and which lies near an important highway.

The nuns' seizure confirmed the fears of many in Syria's minority Christian community that they were being targeted by extremists among rebels. Syria's three-year conflict has become increasingly sectarian.

Syria's chaotic mix of rebel groups is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim. The country's patchwork of minorities, which includes Christians, Shiite Muslims and a Shiite offshoot, the Alawites, have mostly sided with Assad or remained neutral, fearing for their fate should rebels take power. Assad belongs to the Alawite sect.

Many in Syria's minority groups are concerned about the role of al-Qaida-inspired groups among the rebels. Some militants have vandalised churches and abducted several clerics.

Two bishops were seized in rebel-held areas in April, and an Italian Jesuit priest, Father Paolo Dall'Oglio, went missing in July after travelling to meet militants in Raqqa. None has been heard from since.

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