DAMASCUS — The last 19 Druze women and children abducted by the Islamic State group in July from the southern Syrian province of Sweida were freed on Thursday and welcomed by their relatives, state media said.
Syrian state media said the mass liberation was the result of a military operation but others insisted the 15-week hostage ordeal was ended thanks to a prisoner swap agreement.
Media reported that the freed hostages "met their relatives" after more than three months of gruelling captivity during which at least two of the group were killed.
Local journalist Nour Radwan said the hostages were brought to a military base in the north of Sweida province, where they were met by family members. The group would next head to Sweida city, where dozens of people had gathered to welcome them home, said Radwan.
According to state news agency SANA, the army "clashed directly with the IS terrorist organisation, which had abducted women and children from the Sweida province".
Government troops "were able to liberate all the 19 hostages... and kill the terrorist kidnappers", it added.
Syrian television broadcast images of veiled women, boys, and at least one girl surrounded by men in military uniforms near a white pick-up truck in a desert landscape.
It said the images were broadcast from the desert near the ancient city of Palmyra in the centre of the country.
In Sweida, Jawdat Abu Omar was in his car rushing to the provincial capital to see his wife, eight-year-old daughter Shahad, and 13-year-old son Qusay.
"I can’t even describe how I’m feeling. I’ve never felt this happy in my life," he said over the phone.
"We’ll be waiting for them," he said.
IS jihadists abducted about 30 people -- mostly women and children -- from Sweida late July during the deadliest attack of the seven-year civil war on Syria’s Druze community.
Radwan said the women and children were freed in a prisoner exchange deal.
"The freeing of the remaining hostages came as part of a prisoner swap deal, and today was the second stage of that deal," he said. — AFP