Beirut: The Syrian government is negotiating with rebels to release 12 nuns seized earlier this month from a convent north of Damascus, two activists said on Saturday.
The rebels are demanding that hundreds of imprisoned women activists be freed in exchange for the nuns, they said.
Reports of local cease-fires and other short-term deals have become more common as Syria`s three-year-old civil war drags on, but talks leading to prisoner exchanges still appear to be rare.
There was no immediate government comment. Calls to the Lebanon-based Greek Orthodox Patriarchate which oversees the convent went unanswered.
A spokesman for the rebel brigade al-Habib al-Moustafa said that so far government officials had refused the demand to release prisoners. The spokesman, who used the alias of Abu Nidal for security reasons, said a mediator was speaking to both parties. He said his group wasn`t involved in negotiations, but was relaying information from other fighters.
The negotiations were also confirmed by a Syrian opposition activist who requested anonymity, as he was discussing talks conducted by other parties. He said the rebels were also demanding the release of imprisoned Saudi Arabian nationals captured while fighting for the opposition.
The activist said negotiations began immediately after the nuns were seized from their convent of Mar Takla in the village of Maloula, north of Damascus on December 6 when rebels overran the area. At least another three women were also seized from the convent`s orphanage. They were taken to the nearby rebel-held town of Yabroud, activists say.
The seized women appeared on a video days after their capture saying they were alive and well.
The rebel faction that released the video did not identify itself. No faction has announced that it has control of the women. Syrian opposition activists and Church officials have said the al Qaeda-linked group Jabhat al-Nusra, or the Nusra Front, is holding them.
The kidnapping of the women strengthened fears among Syria`s minority Christians that al Qaeda-linked militants and other extremists, who are increasingly prominent in rebel ranks, are targeting them.
A priest and two bishops previously kidnapped by rebels remain missing, and extremists are accused of vandalising churches in areas they have captured.
Christians and other minorities, like the Druse and Shiites, tend to support the government of President Bashar Assad, who comes from the country`s minority Alawite sect. Syria`s Sunni Muslim majority forms the backbone of the uprising against Assad.