Nine Lebanese Shiite pilgrims kidnapped by rebels in Syria last year have been released, with signs that two Turkish pilots whose abduction was linked to their capture may also be freed.
“The nine Lebanese held in Syria are on their way to Turkey,” Lebanon’s Interior Minister Marwan Charbel said on Friday.
The country’s Prime Minister Najib Mikati added in a statement that the former hostages were “in a secure place and are ready to enter Lebanon”.
Mikati extended congratulations to the free Lebanese, their families and the whole country on turning “a sad page for Lebanon. We thank all those who contributed to achieving their freedom, brothers and friendly nations.”
He also revealed that Qatar’s Foreign Minister Khaled al-Attiyah, who is in Turkey, will accompany the pilgrims back to Lebanon. Attiyah told Al-Jazeera television that Qatari mediation led to their release.
The release also came after a senior Lebanese security official travelled to Damascus to discuss a prisoner exchange deal to free the group, who were abducted in Syria’s northern Aleppo province in May last year as their families said they were returning from a pilgrimage to Iran.
Turkey said the detention of two Turkish Airlines pilots kidnapped in Beirut in August was close to ending.
The pilots were abducted by a previously unknown group, which said it had seized the pair to secure the release of the nine Lebanese citizens held captive in Syria.
“Very favourable developments are under way concerning the two Turkish pilots. This matter has been largely settled,” Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said on local television, adding that the men could be freed “within hours or days”.
The relatives of the nine Lebanese pilgrims have denied responsibility for kidnapping the pilots, though they said they were happy to see additional pressure placed on Ankara.
They had accused Turkey of not doing enough to win the release of their loved ones from Syrian rebels.
On August 9, gunmen ambushed a bus carrying a Turkish Airlines crew from Beirut’s international airport to a hotel in the city, and snatched the pilot and co-pilot.
A group calling itself Zuwwar Imam al-Rida claimed the abduction, and demanded Turkey use its influence with the Syrian rebels it backs to secure the release of the nine Lebanese Shiites.
“We announce that captain Murat Akpinar and his co-pilot Murat Agca are our guests until the release of our brothers, who were kidnapped in Aazaz [in Syria] after visiting holy sites,” the group said in a statement in August carried by Lebanese media.
“Turkey is directly responsible for the freedom” of the Lebanese hostages, the statement added.
The pilots were seized just outside the airport, in an area controlled by the powerful Shiite Lebanese movement Hezbollah.
Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah has denied any involvement in the kidnapping.
The pre-dawn abduction prompted Turkey to urge its citizens to leave the country, and raised new fears about the impact of Syria’s conflict on neighbouring Lebanon.
About a week after the kidnapping, Lebanese authorities arrested three suspects, whose identities were not revealed, a judicial source said at the time.