9 Shiite pilgrims from Lebanon kidnapped in Syria freed
A man removes debris of a truck damaged after a mortar shell hit a street killing several people in the Bustan Al-Qasr district of Aleppo, Syria, on Dec. 17, 2012. (AP / Narciso Contreras)
Published Friday, October 18, 2013 10:41AM EDT
Last Updated Friday, October 18, 2013 5:03PM EDT
BEIRUT -- Nine Shiite pilgrims from Lebanon kidnapped in Syria were freed late Friday night as part of a negotiated hostage deal that could see two Turkish pilot held in Lebanon released, officials said.
The pilgrims were part of a group of 11 hostages taken by a rebel faction in northern Syria in May 2012. Two were later released, but the nine had been held since, causing friction in the region and sparking an August kidnapping in Beirut that saw two Turkish Airlines pilots abducted.
Lebanese Interior Minister Marwan Charbel told The Associated Press that the nine Lebanese hostages "are now in Turkish territories." Charbel said he expects two Turkish pilots to be released in Lebanon soon and the Syrian government will release a number of female detainees.
"We insist that those who kidnapped the Turks release them," he said, referring to the pilot. The two pilots appeared in a video on Wednesday, the first since they were kidnapped.
"This is all part of one deal," Charbel said by telephone.
Asked when he expects the freed Lebanese to come home, he said "in the coming 24 to 48 hours."
In Turkey, the state-run Anadolu Agency quoted Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu as saying "there are positive developments" concerning the hostages and that the issue had "mostly been resolved." The agency did not immediately provide any further detail, though a previous story said Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the wife of one of the kidnapped pilots to say the two would be released soon.
"We are very close to reaching a happy ending, this could happen any time," the agency quoted Erdogan as saying.
The pilgrims were kidnapped in May 2012 while on their way from Iran to Lebanon through Turkey and Syria. They were kidnapped shortly after they crossed the Turkish border into Syria. Two of the pilgrims were later released with Turkey's assistance.
In Beirut's southern suburbs, the families of the nine Lebanese gathered at a travel agency that they went to Iran with, some of them weeping.
The two Turkish Airlines pilots, previously identified as Murat Akpinar and Murat Agca, were kidnapped after flying into Beirut from Istanbul on Aug. 9. Lebanon's state news agency reported that a group called Zuwaar al-Imam Rida claimed responsibility for the kidnapping. The group said the pilots "will only be released when the Lebanese hostages in Syria return," referring to the Shiite pilgrims.
The commander of the rebel brigade that kidnapped the pilgrims, Ammar al-Dadikhi, told the AP last September that he was holding them captive to try to force Lebanon's Shiite militant group Hezbollah to stop supporting Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime.
Syria's rebels are predominantly Sunnis, and are widely supported by Lebanon's own Sunni community.
Details about the negotiated deal remained vague Friday night, including who was responsible for co-ordinating across different factions in the Syrian civil war. Satellite news channel Al-Jazeera quoted Qatar's Foreign Minister Khalid bin Mohamed al-Attiyah as saying the tiny Gulf nation negotiated the release of the nine pilgrims.
At least 100,000 Syrians have been killed in the country's civil war, now in its third year.