Beirut (AFP) – Nine Lebanese pilgrims held hostage in Syria for 17 months arrived in Beirut after being freed in an exchange that also released two Turkish Airlines pilots seized in Lebanon.
The Shiite pilgrims were greeted by cabinet ministers and other senior officials from across the political spectrum in Lebanon, where their seizure had sparked angry protests by family members.
Relatives broke into tears and cries of joy for the return of the nine Lebanese, who appeared in good health.
The two Turkish pilots were freed earlier Saturday as part of an exchange deal for the nine former hostages of Syrian rebels, the official Lebanese news agency NNA said.
Murat Akpinar and Murat Agca were met at Istanbul’s Ataturk airport Saturday night by their families and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, an AFP photographer reported.
Turkish television broadcast comments from the men about their two months of captivity.
“We were moved eight times, and each time was like a new abduction,” said Akpinar, but he added: “We had decided to maintain good relations with our captors.”
The agreement freeing the Lebanese and the Turks also called for the release of 200 Syrians jailed by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, according to sources close to the Turkish and Qatari mediation that led to the deal.
It was not immediately clear if the Syrians had also been freed.
The release of the pilots seized just outside Beirut international airport in August came a day after the Shiite pilgrims were transferred to Turkey and handed to Lebanese officials in Istanbul.
The pilots had been abducted on August 9 by a group that demanded that Turkey use its influence with Syrian rebels to secure the release of the nine Lebanese.
Relatives of the Lebanese have repeatedly denied involvement in the kidnapping of the pilots, seized in an area controlled by Lebanon’s Shiite militant group Hezbollah, whose chief Hassan Nasrallah has denied any involvement.
The Shiite pilgrims were snatched as they headed home overland in May 2012 after visiting holy sites in Iran, with rebels charging they belonged to Hezbollah, which backs the Damascus regime.
General Abbas Ibrahim, who heads Lebanon’s Security Agency, had travelled to Damascus Friday to discuss a deal to free the hostages in exchange for Syrian prisoners, as demanded by the rebel captors.
Qatari Foreign Minister Khaled al-Attiyah told Al-Jazeera television that Doha had also mediated the release of the Lebanese, and that he planned to accompany them from Turkey to Lebanon.
The abductions prompted Turkey to urge its citizens to leave Lebanon, and raised new fears about the impact of Syria’s conflict on neighbouring countries.
Lebanon’s feuding political factions have been further split by the Syrian war, with Hezbollah and its allies backing the Syrian regime and their opponents supporting the Sunni-led rebellion against the Assad family’s 40-year rule.
Clashes have periodically erupted between supporters and opponents of the Damascus regime in the northern city of Tripoli and in recent months dozens of people have been killed in rocket attacks and bombings elsewhere in the country.
- Politics & Government
- Unrest, Conflicts & War
- Turkish Airlines