Syria freed only 25 prisoners, not 150 as had been reported, in exchange for a group of kidnapped nuns, the country’s information minister Omran al-Zohbi has claimed.
The statement came despite mediators and the opposition saying nearly 150 female detainees had been freed in exchange for the nuns, who were kidnapped from the town of Maalula by rebels fighters last year.
“The number of people released in exchange for the Maalula nuns is not more than 25 people whose hands had not been stained by the blood of the Syrian people,” state news agency SANA quoted Zohbi as saying.
“Everything that has been said on this issue is not accurate and has been exaggerated.”
His remarks directly contradicted comments made by Lebanon’s General Security chief Ibrahim Abbas, who mediated the exchange and said more than 150 prisoners were freed under the deal.
Opponents close to the exchange operation also told AFP on Monday that 141 women detainees and an unspecified “small” number of men had been released in exchange for 13 nuns and three maids kidnapped from the ancient Christian town in December.
Zohbi also denied reports the deal had been secured thanks to a mediation process involving Qatar, which is a key backer of the uprising against Syria’s government.
“The operation… was carried out without any direct or indirect contact between Syria and Qatar,” he said.
The statements come after an outpouring of rage by supporters of President Bashar al-Assad over the exchange operation, with some pro-regime media and activists directing their anger at the nuns.
After their release, one of the Greek Orthodox nuns thanked Assad and Lebanon’s Security agency for mediating the deal, but she also thanked Qatari Emir Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani.
She also said their kidnappers, the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Nusra Front, had treated them well and denied rumours they were forced to remove their crosses.
Their statements were a sharp contrast with the regime’s blanket description of Syria’s rebels as “terrorists”.
“I’d like to remind you that at the start of the events in Maalula (in December) the Syrian army tried to get (the nuns) out of there, but they refused because they had relations with the armed men (rebels),” said one pro-regime activist on Facebook.
A news presenter on pro-Assad Sama TV meanwhile accused the nuns in Monday’s broadcast of “treachery, or at the very least, stepping away from the nation.”
The presenter also described the nun’s statement as “shocking and hurtful.”
From the start of the anti-Assad revolt in March 2011, the regime has sought to portray itself as protector of the country’s multiple religious and ethnic minorities.