Syrian army frees 19 Druze women and children from IS group
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The last 19 Druze women and children abducted by the Islamic State group in July from the southern Syrian province of Sweida were freed 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 told AFP 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 told AFP 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 told AFP.
Another hostage killed?
Two women and four children were released last month in a first step of the same agreement that also saw women and children related to IS fighters freed from regime jails, he said.
"The agreement provides for swapping those who were abducted for detained IS relatives in Syrian government jails," Radwan added.
"A first step saw the Syrian government free 25 detainees including 17 women and eight children related to IS."
The Druze community had been hoping for the return of 20 hostages, Radwan said.
"IS told the family of one of the female hostages that they had killed her but did not send any proof. We're waiting for them to arrive in Sweida. If there are 19 of them then it means she really was killed," he said.
IS executed a 19-year-old male student among the hostages in August and then a 25-year-old woman in early October.
The jihadists said a 65-year-old woman held by the group died from illness.
In the July 25 attack, IS killed more than 250 people, most of them civilians, in a wave of suicide bombings, shootings, and stabbings across Sweida province.
Regime forces have since pressed a deadly battle against the jihadist group on the volcanic plateau of Tulul al-Safa in the east of the province.
Syria's grinding civil war has claimed more than 360,000 lives since it started with the bloody repression of anti-government protests in 2011.
Sweida province is the heartland of the country's Druze minority, which made up roughly three percent of Syria's pre-war population -- or about 700,000 people.
Followers of a secretive offshoot of Islam, the Druze are considered heretics by the Sunni extremists of IS.