Isis release 19 Assyrian Christians, as 200 remain in captivity

It is believed the 19 were released on Sunday after they appeared in court

Isis militants have released at least 19 prisoners who were among a group of over 220 Christian Assyrians it had taken captive in north-eastern Syria last week.

Their freedom on Sunday offers a glimmer of hope for the remaining captives, who Isis hauled away from villages along the Khabur River in Hassakeh province.

Most of the captives are believed to have been taken by fighters to the Isis-held told of Shaddadeh, which is located 50 kilometers (30 miles) south of the city of Hassakeh.

The 16 men and three women from the village of Tal Ghoran travelled by bus from Shaddadeh and arrived safely at the Church of the Virgin Mary in the city of Hassakeh on Sunday, said Bashir Saedi, a senior official in the Assyrian Democratic Organisation.

The Assyrian Human Rights Network also reported the release, and published photos on its Facebook page which it said showed a crowd welcoming those freed.

It remains unclear why the group were released, with some believing it may have been due to the age of the prisoners, or because a court had ruled them not guilty of violating the so-called Islamic State’s strict interpretation of Sharia law.

Mr Saedi said those who were released were aged above 50, which indicates age may have been a factor.

However, the Assyrian Human Rights Network said the captives had been ordered released by a Shariah court after paying an unspecified amount of money levied as a tax on non-Muslims.

Osama Edward, the head of the organisation based in Sweden whose family were among the captured Christians, told CNN that the judge asked captives if they were part of any militia, which they said they were not, and subsequently released them, deciding they were not violating Sharia law.

Now, Assyrian leaders and Sunni tribal sheikhs are attempting to reach out to Isis to try to negotiate the release of the captives, activists said.

Younan Talia, a senior official in the Assyrian Democratic Organisation, said it is contacting any party that might help, including allies of Isis.

Referring to Isis using the Arabic acronym Daesh, Talia said: “We're working through our friends the tribal sheikhs. Some friends of Daesh are trying to send messages,” but added there had been no response yet.

The abductions have added to fears among religious minorities in both Syria and Iraq, who have been repeatedly targeted by the Islamic State group.

During the militants' bloody campaign in both countries, where they have declared a self-styled caliphate, minorities have been repeatedly targeted and killed, driven from their homes, had their women enslaved and places of worship destroyed.

Additional reporting by AP

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