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Canadians held hostage by former al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria reach Turkey

Jolly Bimbachi and Sean Moore were held for several weeks by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, an alliance dominated by a former al-Qaeda affiliate
The two speak about their ordeal in the Bab al-Hawa crossing (AFP)

Two Canadian citizens who were being held by the hardline group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in northwestern Syria were released on Monday to Turkish authorities, the pair said.

Jolly Bimbachi and Sean Moore were held for several weeks by HTS, an alliance dominated by a former al-Qaeda affiliate.

They had crossed into Syria in December 2017 from Lebanon, where Bimbachi was fighting a custody battle for her two sons, she told AFP.

Bimbachi's husband reportedly took their two sons to Lebanon in 2015 and never returned. Canadian media has described it as a case of international child abduction.

"Things were going a long way, so I decided to take an illegal route and bring my kids through Syria into Turkey, and hopefully the Canadian embassy in Turkey will help us out," Bimbachi said.

"It didn't work out quite as I planned but I came into Syria on December 31 with a friend of mine, Sean Moore," she said at Syria's Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey.

"They're going to take us into Turkey, and in Turkey, we are going to meet someone from the Canadian embassy."

She did not explain the whereabouts of her children.

Canada confirmed the pair's release.

"We are relieved that two Canadian citizens have left Syria safely," foreign affairs ministry spokeswoman Amy Mills told AFP.

Bassam Sahyouni, a high-ranking figure involved in the transfer, told reporters on Monday that the pair were picked up in northwest Syria by HTS. Sahyouni said HTS then transferred them to affiliated civilian authorities known as the Salvation Government.

"For 20 days, we were communicating with the Turkish and Canadian governments to guarantee the safety of the two Canadians, and hand them over to the Canadian government via the Turks," Sahyouni said.

He insisted no money was paid for their release.

International child custody battles are not uncommon in Lebanon.

In 2016, an Australian woman was detained in Lebanon for allegedly abducting her two children from their Lebanese father in an operation filmed by an Australian television crew.

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