Lebanese soldier recalls terrifying Qaeda kidnap ordeal

Lebanon - Lebanese soldier George al-Khoury cried for days after Al-Qaeda executed a fellow captive during one of the lowest points of his 16-month ordeal as a hostage of the group.

Now back home in northern Lebanon, he can barely believe he is free and safe.

"My God, how long I've waited to see my son Michael," he says in the living room of his home in Kobayat, with his mother, his wife and their second son Andrew seated around him.

The 30-year-old was among several dozen Lebanese police and soldiers kidnapped by Al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate Al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State group from the border town of Arsal in August 2014.

After months of failed negotiations and desperate pleas from their relatives, Al-Nusra last week freed the 16 captives it held in exchange for the release of prisoners in Lebanese jails and aid.

Khoury joined the army in 2004, to reluctantly fulfil his compulsory service, but stayed on after landing an easy posting at a military hospital.

But in 2014, he was unexpectedly transferred to Arsal, a restive town in east Lebanon where the conflict in neighbouring Syria regularly spills over and tensions run high.

It was there, on August 2, that his life changed.

"We were having a coffee with the commander of the battalion in Arsal when it started, with a sniper bullet that killed Sergeant Dirani," Khoury says, his hands shaking as he lights a cigarette.

"Suddenly, there was heavy gunfire everywhere." "One soldier came over to me, his intestines had been pierced by a bullet and he was crying, 'I don't want to die. I want to go to my children,'" Khoury says, as his mother looks on in horror from across the living room.

Another soldier who had tried to provide covering fire to help his friends escape was shot in the head in front of Khoury and his colleagues.

Within minutes, Khoury found himself surrounded by dozens of militants.

"They were hooded and heavily armed. I remember no fewer than 20 of them surrounding me and one of them promised not to kill me if I surrendered," he said.

Another delightedly stole his phone before pushing him outside and onto a truck with other prisoners.

"They stepped on us, cursed and insulted us as they transported us, but thankfully they didn't beat us," he says.

He was taken to a mosque, and initially thought his ordeal might be brief.

But as the sounds of the battle continued to rage, the gunmen returned and said he would be moved with the others to a "safe place".

That place was a cave, the first of several places Khoury and the other captives would be held during their 16 months as hostages.

They spent much of their long days in darkness, blindfolded for hours at a time, except to eat or use the bathroom.

To keep their spirits up, they talked quietly among themselves about their families back home.

Khoury had left behind his four-year-old son Michael, and his wife Mary, who was pregnant.

She gave birth to their second son, Andrew, while Khoury was held hostage.

"I thank God, my life is full of joy now," she says, smiling as she looks at her husband.

Some of their captors would speak to them, and even allowed him to walk around outside.

They were given lessons in Islamic law, though Khoury, a Christian, says he was not pressured to convert.

But others used psychological tactics like setting off firecrackers to terrify the captives into thinking they would die.

And a little over a month into their captivity, Al-Nusra executed the first of the hostages, Mohammed Hammiya.

"I cried for two days in a row," Khoury says.

A second soldier, Ali al-Bazzal, a Shiite Muslim like Hammiya, was separated from the group and fed almost nothing. He too would eventually be killed.

The remaining men were transferred to another cave, and then a house, and had their hopes of release raised and dashed several times.

Khoury dreamed often about going home, and said the separation from his children was the worst hardship.

Finally, last week, they were told a deal had been reached, and were allowed to shower, put on clean clothes and cologne in preparation.

At the final checkpoint before the exchange, they were told negotiations had broken down and Khoury began to shake, and then to pray.

The process resumed, and the men were transferred into Red Cross ambulances that took them to an army checkpoint.

In the ambulance, Khoury borrowed a cellphone and called his mother.

"Mum, it's George," he said.

"George who?" his mother replied in disbelief.

"I said to her, 'It's your son,' and she began to shriek with joy," he says smiling.