BEIRUT - Al-Qaeda's affiliate in Syria released more than a dozen Lebanese soldiers and police it has held for more than a year Tuesday as part of a Qatar-brokered deal in which Lebanon freed at least 11 prisoners, including a former wife of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
The release caps Lebanon's lengthy ordeal over the fate of its soldiers while also providing the al-Qaeda branch, known as the Nusra Front, with new leverage as a group that can be negotiated with.
"My happiness is beyond description," said a Lebanese policeman, one of the 16 released Tuesday, shortly after he was taken to the point where the exchange took place in the eastern town of Arsal, near the Syrian border.
Later Tuesday, Qatar acknowledged that it had brokered the deal, saying it had received requests from the Lebanese government to negotiate.
Qatar, a strong supporter of insurgents fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, relishes its role as a regional mediator and maintains channels to a broad range of parties, including Islamic extremist groups like the Afghan Taliban.
"Qatar pressured Nusra Front to end this crisis in order to introduce the Nusra Front as a group that negotiates. This is linked to the Vienna talks," said Radwan Mortada, an expert on jihadi groups who writes for Lebanon's Al-Akhbar daily newspaper.
He was referring to a peace plan agreed to last month by 17 nations meeting in Vienna that sets a Jan. 1 deadline to start talks between Assad and opposition groups.
The Nusra Front is not expected to take part in the talks as it is considered a terrorist organization by most countries.
At least 11 prisoners in Lebanese jails, including five women, were released as part of the deal, according to a senior Lebanese security official.
The group included Saja al-Dulaimi, the 26-year-old former wife of the leader of the Islamic State, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity. She was detained in Lebanon last year after she crossed into the country illegally with her current husband using forged identity cards.