updated 12/22/2006 2:41:57 PM ET 2006-12-22T19:41:57

Two children who lived in the Dutch embassy in Damascus for nearly six months during a custody battle between their parents were reunited with their mother on Friday.

Dutch courts had awarded custody to the mother, Janneke Schoonhoven, but the children traveled to Syria with their father, Hisham al-Hafez during a vacation in 2004 and never came back. Schoonhoven filed kidnapping charges against al-Hafez.

According to Schoonhoven, the pair — Ammar, 13, and Sara, 11 — slipped away from their father and took a cab to the embassy in June 2006, hoping to be able to return to the Netherlands.

Al-Hafez said they had been kidnapped by embassy staff, and insisted they be released into his care. Syrian law favors the father in custody cases, and a stalemate ensued where the children stayed or were kept within embassy confines to avoid falling into his hands.

But the Dutch government said al-Hafez finally agreed to their return.

All lawsuits, arrest warrant canceled
They were cleared to fly home after talks between Dutch and Syrian diplomats and following a Dec. 12 trip to Damascus by Foreign Minister Ben Bot during which he discussed the children’s plight with his Syrian counterpart, Walid al-Moallem.

“We can finally embrace them safely back in our arms, after such a long wait, two and a half years,” Schoonhoven told Dutch broadcaster NOS by telephone. “And before Christmas.”

Al-Hafez told the AP by phone in Damascus that Ammar and Sara left after an agreement with the Dutch foreign ministry under which all suits filed against him were dropped by the Dutch government. An international arrest warrant was canceled.

“I have committed no crime, and now I have the right to visit them and vice versa whenever we want,” he said.

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