Lebanon’s Prime Minister Tammam Salam speaks after Lebanese soldiers and policemen captured by the Nusra Front were freed, in Beirut on Tuesday. Qatar’s Ambassador to Lebanon Ali bin Hamad al-Marri is second from left.
Al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate on Tuesday freed 16 Lebanese soldiers and police it captured more than a year ago, in a prisoner swap that partially ended a long-running hostage crisis.
The release was greeted with jubilation in Beirut, where families of the kidnapped have manned a protest camp demanding their freedom for the last 16 months.
But it also underlined the uncertainty over the fate of nine other servicemen who were also kidnapped in August 2014 from the border town of Arsal, and are being held by the Islamic State group.
The 16 hostages - 13 policemen and three soldiers - were transferred from territory held by Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front on the mountainous border with Syria by Lebanon's Red Cross.
Television footage showed the men, some sporting long beards and hair, boarding four Red Cross vehicles before being driven to an army checkpoint.
Around them, armed and masked Al-Nusra fighters waved the group's black flag and chanted slogans.
Hours later, the freed men arrived in Beirut, dressed in their police and military uniforms, clean-shaven, and with their hair freshly cut.
They were greeted by Prime Minister Tammam Salam, who pledged to continue efforts to free the remaining nine hostages.
The head of Lebanon's general security body, Major General Abbas Ibrahim, who oversaw the release efforts, also made reference to those still in captivity.
"Today is a day of joy, but we look forward to a day of joy when we bring back the servicemen kidnapped by Daesh," Ibrahim said.
Also present was the ambassador of Qatar, which played a key role mediating the swap.
Under the deal, Lebanon freed more than a dozen prisoners, including the former wife of IS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Saja al-Dulaimi.
It also gave Al-Nusra several trucks of humanitarian aid.
The prisoners were originally intended to be handed to Al-Nusra, but a security source told AFP that at least 10 of them were returned to Beirut instead, at their request.
Joy and relief
Dulaimi appeared to be among that group, telling Al-Jazeera television during the exchange process that she wanted to go to Beirut and possibly on to Turkey.
In downtown Beirut, where relatives of the kidnapped servicemen have manned a protest camp since they were seized, there were tears of joy and relief.
Relatives gathered around televisions to watch as their sons, husbands and brothers prepared for their release.
Several screamed and ululated and even broke into the Middle Eastern dance known as dabke to express their joy.
Others distributed sweets or threw petals and rice into the air.
"I've been awake day and night for the last few days, because there were positive signs," said Marie Khoury, whose brother George was among the released men.
"There will be seven days of drumming and celebrations in Kobayat," she said, of their ancestral village.
'Don't forget about us'
But she added: "Our joy is incomplete without the release of those held by the Islamic State group and we hope that the Lebanese state will intensify its efforts for their release."
Amid the celebrations, the mother of one of the IS hostages came to congratulate the families of those being freed, but quickly dissolved into tears.
"Don't forget about us," she pleaded with them, as they assured her they would continue to pressure the Lebanese government to secure the release of the remaining hostages.
The prisoner exchange comes 16 months after Al-Nusra and IS briefly overran the town of Arsal on Lebanon's eastern border with Syria after clashes with Lebanese troops.
The groups withdrew under a truce deal, but took 30 hostages with them.
Four of the hostages were subsequently executed by the two groups, including Mohammed Hammiya, whose body was turned over to Lebanese authorities on Tuesday morning in the first stage of the deal.
A fifth died of wounds sustained in the Arsal clashes shortly after he was taken hostage.