Almost 40 Assyrian Christians kidnapped by Islamic State were today released following negotiations by the Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East.
The Assyrian Human Rights Network reported that the 37 released were among those who had been abducted from villages along the Khabour River in northern Syria in February. ISIS militants raided the villages at dawn, taking over 200 people as hostages.
In addition to the 37 freed today, a number have already been released, including 22 elderly men and women in August.
The Assyrian Human Rights Network said the captives released today were also elderly, and had been returned to the town of Tel Tamer. It posted a picture showing several people including one woman, who was weeping, and confirmed that all those who had been freed were in good health.
ISIS have now released 88 hostages in total, and negotiations are continuing to secure the freedom of the remaining 124.
Last month, however, militants released a video showing the execution three of the hostages, and threatened to murder those still in captivity if a multi-million dollar ransom was not paid.
Initially, ISIS demanded a ransom fee of around $100,000 per hostage, totalling $23 million. When it became clear that the Assyrian community could not afford it, however, the amount was lowered to between $12-$14 million.
Following the news of the 37 being freed today, A Demand For Action (ADFA), a campaign group for minorities in the Middle East, congratulated the Assyrian Church on its efforts to secure the release of the hostages, and expressed a hope that more would soon be freed.
Diana Yaqco, spokeswoman for ADFA, told Christian Today: "I am so relieved there is movement again and that the Church has made the Assyrian community so proud in the way it has handled the situation under such huge pressure. The church leaders are not politicians or professional negotiators but they have not abandoned anyone."
She continued: "It is sad we are left to fend for ourselves yet again when cries for help have been ignored by many world leaders since the invasion of Mosul which saw our people become beggars in their country. Have you ever felt a stranger in your own home? That is how we feel. Our children deserve a future and it doesn't need to be under IS and their brutality."
In a statement, ADFA said that mother of one of the hostages executed a few weeks ago was released today, and it is believed that she had not been aware of her son's death. "This remains the sad reality for many, as they do not know if their family members are alive still due to the separation," the statement said.
"We remain in touch with relatives of those whom have been kidnapped in places like Sweden. They are still hopeful to see their loved ones released also and have been filtering through photos circulating on social media in hope to find a face they recognise.
"We continue to urge the appropriate governing bodies to intervene where they can to help safely return the remaining hostages. Urgent humanitarian assistance is still required to Iraq & Syria as the internally displaced person's crises deepens."
Additional reporting by Reuters