Damascus -- The Christians abducted by the Islamic State (IS) group on 23 February from villages in north-eastern Syria, near the border with Turkey, "were released in mid-week, 5 and 6 March, without payment of any ransom," said Mgr Mario Zenari.
"The 52 families who were held for days by the jihadists" are now safe, the Apostolic Nuncio to Syria, told AsiaNews. However, "The militia still hold 16 people. Half of them are Christians; the other half is made up of Kurds."
Meanwhile, the situation in Syria continues to be appalling. The most critical situation is in Damascus and Aleppo where air strikes, shelling and gun battles continued throughout the day yesterday.
The Islamic State group abducted Christian families during its offensive against Assyrian villages in the Al Hasakah Governorate, in north-eastern Syria. That involved about 250 people, but the figure could not be verified. Initial claims that they were executed were later denied.
The area is strategic because it links caliphate-controlled regions in Syria with those in Iraq, and can be used as corridor to bring in weapons, supplies and fighters from Turkey.
Local witnesses report that, following the offensive, more than 5,000 Assyrians (out of 30,000) decided to leave the country, choosing exile for security reason. Their community is one of the oldest Christian communities in the Middle East.
Earlier this month the terrorists released a first group of 19 Christians, after the payment of a ransom of about $ 1,700 each.
Speaking to AsiaNews, the apostolic nuncio noted that "at least 52 Christian families were released without the payment of a ransom." For the prelate, Islamist "militias seized them for use as human shields" against coalition air strikes during their pullback.
"Things are going bad," he said regarding the situation in Syria. "Yesterday was a tough day both in Damascus and Aleppo."
"We could hear planes over our heads, and various rounds of mortar landed in various parts of the capital," he said. The next days "are not going to be any better."
Clashes and violence were also reported in the north, in Aleppo, where Syrian security forces loyal to President Bashar al Assad and rebel groups control sections of the long-divided city.
Last week, UN envoy Staffan De Mistura failed in his attempt to broker a truce. The diplomat had suggested a temporary ceasefire in Aleppo to allow humanitarian aid into the city and give time to come up with a first draft of a political agreement. However, representatives for the rebels and Islamist fighters did not accept the UN-backed truce.
"Our fear was that talks would fail," said the apostolic nuncio. "Now we have to wait and see what happens, but there is little room for optimism."
Since the beginning of the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al Assad in 2011, more than 3.2 million people have fled the country whilst another 7.6 million are internally displaced. At least 200,000 people have been killed in the fighting, many of them civilians.
In the spring of 2013, the Islamic State group emerged out of the cauldron of Syria's civil war, with all its violence and brutality. From that moment, it advanced rapidly, seizing large swathes of Syrian and Iraqi territory, where it imposed a virtual reign of terror.