The Islamic State group released at least 19 Christians today who were among the more than 220 people the militants took captive in northeastern Syria last week, activists and a local leader said. The news provided a modicum of relief to a Christian Assyrian community that has been devastated by the abductions, which saw ISIS fighters haul off entire families from a string of villages along the Khabur River in Hassakeh province. But fears remain over the fate of the hundreds still held captive. A senior official in the Assyrian Democratic Organization said the 16 men and three women arrived safely today at the Church of the Virgin Mary in Hassakeh. He said the 19—all of them from the village of Tal Ghoran—had traveled by bus from the ISIS-held town of Shaddadeh.
The Assyrian Human Rights Network also reported the release, and published photographs it said were from Hassakeh showing a crowd greeting the returnees. The photos appeared genuine and corresponded to AP reporting. It was not immediately clear why the Islamic State group freed these captives. All those released were around 50 years of age or older, which suggests age might have been a factor. The Assyrian Human Rights Network, meanwhile, 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. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also said a Shariah court had ruled the captives be freed, but the reasoning behind the decision was unknown. The fate of the more than 200 other Christian Assyrians still in the Islamic State group's hands remains unclear. (Read more ISIS stories.)