Terrorists from Islamic State, or ISIS, in northern Syria Sunday released 19 Assyrian Christians, out of the hundreds they had captured last week, but refused to set free a 6-year-old girl, whom they are likely using as a "bargaining chip," an activist group said.
The 19 Assyrians from the village of Tel Goran in Syria's al-Hasakah province were released after local Arab leaders negotiated with ISIS for three days, Assyrian International News Agency, or AINA, said Sunday.
The Assyrians have arrived safely at St. Mary's Church in Hasakah, the group said.
Those released include 17 women and two men. Many more from the village of Tel Goran and hundreds from other villages remain captive.
An elderly woman who was released said ISIS did not release her son and two other men who were guarding the village.
ISIS also refused to let a 6-year-old girl go, according to the released hostages, who believe the terror group plans to use the girl as a "bargaining chip." The girl's mother was released but she refused to go and stayed with her daughter.
The hostages who returned had not been harmed.
AINA estimates that ISIS captured between 262 and 373 Assyrians from 35 villages on Feb. 23. Their release is also being negotiated.
AINA had earlier said that ISIS agreed in principle to set free only those who did not fight back when ISIS attacked their villages.
The U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which documents human rights situation in Syria, had reported Saturday that a Sharia Court of ISIS issued an order for the release of 29 Assyrian citizens.
"ISIS has claimed for a long time to follow rules, and it claims that these Sharia courts will impose limits," Graeme Wood of The Atlantic told CNN. "They can attempt to get credibility by showing that they follow rules and that they have some kind of transparent process that follows their particular implementation of Sharia law."
Meanwhile, Catholic Herald reported Saturday that ISIS militants have killed 15 of those captured.
"Around 15 young Assyrians are martyred. Many of them were fighting to defend and protect the villages and families," it quoted Abbot Emanuel Youkhana as saying. "It is believed there are casualties and many Assyrians have been killed in the village," he added.
Abbot Youkhana also said that the hostages have likely been transported to the nearby area of Mount Abdul Aziz, which is controlled by ISIS.
About 3,000 Assyrians have fled their villages, and there are no families left in the 35 Assyrian Christian villages that were attacked. The only people left in the region are Christian militia fighters who are fighting alongside Kurdish troops.
Since last June, when ISIS declared its "caliphate," the terror group has killed roughly 2,000 people, about two-thirds of them civilians, according to the Observatory.
ISIS is an offshoot of al-Qaeda and wants to establish a caliphate in the Levant region and beyond. It has gained control over large swathes of territories in Syria and Iraq.