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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 18 November 2018

ISIS releases six of 27 Druze hostages in Syria

Release follows agreement between ISIS and Syrian government

People attend the funeral processions for victims of the suicide bombings that hit Sweida province on 25 July and claimed the lives of dozens of people and injured scores others, al-Swaida. EPA
People attend the funeral processions for victims of the suicide bombings that hit Sweida province on 25 July and claimed the lives of dozens of people and injured scores others, al-Swaida. EPA

ISIS has released six of 27 Druze hostages it seized during a deadly attack in Syria's Sweida province in July in exchange for a prisoner swap and a $27 million ransom, a monitor said on Saturday.

The group abducted about 30 people - mostly women and children - from Sweidaduring the deadliest attack on Syria's Druze community of the seven-year civil war.

Families of the hostages led a series of protests outside government offices in Sweida this month to demand that more be done to secure their release.

"Two women and four children from the province of Sweida were released last night," said Rami Abdulrahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group.

He said that the releases were the "first wave" and part of an agreement sealed with the Syrian government to exchange all of the hostages for "60 Islamic State prisoners held by the regime and a ransom of $27m."

Further hostage releases were expected "in the next few days or hours". he said.

During the co-ordinated assaults on July 25, ISIS carried out suicide bombings, shootings and stabbings that left more than 250 people dead across the south-western province, most of them civilians.

Sweida province is the heartland of the country's Druze minority, which made up about three per cent of Syria's prewar population - about 700,000 people.

ISIS executed a 19-year-old male student among the captives in August and then a 25-year-old female captive in early October. The group said a 65-year-old female captive also died after becoming ill.

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In Damascus on Friday Syrian President Bashar Al Assad met representatives of Russia's foreign and defence ministries, Russia's foreign ministry said.

During the meeting, they discussed development of situation in Syria and reaffirmed their commitment to the "destruction of terrorist presence" and advancement towards a long-term political settlement in the interest of all Syrians.

Russia's defence minister said that almost 88,000 rebels had been killed in Syria in the three years since Moscow's intervention to back government forces.

"Over the course of the operation, a total of more than 87,500 rebels have been eliminated, 1,411 settlements have been liberated and more than 95 per cent of Syria's territory," Mr Shoigu said according to a ministry statement. "Most of the rebels have been liquidated."

Russia launched strikes in support of President Assad's regime in September 2015. Since then Russian air forces have carried out more than 40,000 bombing missions, hitting about 120,000 targets of "terrorist" infrastructure, Mr Shoigu said.

Meanwhile in eastern Syria air strikes by the US-led coalition fighting ISIS have killed at least 32 civilians in less than 24 hours, the monitor said on Friday.

Strikes on the village of Sousa resulted in the deaths of 18 civilians, including seven children, late on Thursday and 14 more civilians on Friday.

Dozens were wounded and many remained under the rubble in the village in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor near the Iraqi border, the Observatory's Mr Abdelrahman said.

An estimated 35 militants were also killed during the offensive.

Twenty-eight ISIS members were killed in air strikes by the US-led coalition around the town of Hajin, the Observatory said.

Another seven militants were killed in ground fighting with the Syrian Democratic Forces, who launched a coalition-backed offensive against the ISIS-held pocket in the Euphrates Valley last month.

Fighting has killed 414 militants and 227 SDF fighters in total since the assault began on September 10, the Observatory said.

A coalition spokesman was not available for comment.

ISIS overran large parts of Syria and neighbouring Iraq in 2014, proclaiming a "caliphate" in land it controlled.

They have since lost most of it to various offensives in both countries. In Syria, the group has been reduced to parts of the vast Badia desert and a pocket in Deir Ezzor that includes Sousa.

Since 2014 the US-led coalition has acknowledged direct responsibility for more than 1,100 civilian deaths in Syria and Iraq, but rights groups have said the actual number is much higher.

The observatory has said that coalition strikes in Syria alone have killed more than 3,300 civilians.

Syria's war has killed more than 360,000 people since it erupted in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests.