Lebanese hostages are released in prisoner swap
Release viewed as rare positive sign in Syrian conflict but unlikely to prompt peace talks in war that has left more than 100,000 dead
A flurry of back-room Middle East diplomacy has led to an ambitious international prisoner swap that freed Lebanese citizens held by Syrian rebels and two Turkish pilots kidnapped by Lebanese gunmen.
A plane carrying the nine freed Lebanese captives arrived in Beirut from Istanbul yesterday while a plane from Beirut to Istanbul took the Turkish pilots home.
The swap was brokered and carried out by Lebanese, Turkish, Qatari and Palestinian officials, underlining the strong links between the warring parties in Syria and foreign powers, some of which have actively sought to influence the course of the war.
Some local reports said the Syrian government was expected to release a number of female prisoners as demanded by the rebels in exchange for the captives from Lebanon, which is home to Hezbollah, a Syrian ally.
The full conclusion of the deal would be a rare bright spot in Syria's civil war, which has left more than 100,000 people dead, sent millions of refugees streaming across international borders and exacerbated sectarian tensions across the Middle East.
On Saturday, more than 30 people were killed in intense fighting east of Damascus, about half of them soldiers killed by a suicide bomber.
Despite the success of the swap, it appeared unlikely that the agreement, which involved only one of Syria's hundreds of rebel groups and focused solely on the exchange of captives, could be expanded to open the possibility of talks aimed at ending the war itself.
In fact, the 17-month detention by Sunni rebels left some of the Lebanese captives, all of them Shiites, seeing the war in starkly sectarian terms.
"The situation is worse than you think," Abbas Shuaib, one of the released men, said after his return to Lebanon. "If those people came to Beirut, they would consider our women free for the taking. This is war against the Shiites."
The rebels in Syria are mainly Sunni, and the president, Bashar Assad, is a member of the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
Other men said they had been held in cramped conditions and had often heard battles nearby, but that captors had never threatened their lives.
Their return to Beirut set off a frenzy at the airport and celebrations in their neighbourhoods.
The head of Lebanon's general security agency, Major General Abbas Ibrahim, accompanied the men on their flight to Beirut and thanked Qatar, Turkey and Assad for facilitating the agreement. It was unclear what role Assad may have played.
The Lebanese and Turkish captives flew home aboard private Qatari jets. In Turkey, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan joined a crowd at the airport to welcome the released pilots.
News of the impending swap had spread on Friday, when Lebanon's interior minister said that the Lebanese captives who had been held for more than a year had crossed from northern Syria into Turkey.
The Syrian rebels had accused the men of belonging to the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.
Hezbollah officials and the captives' families denied the accusation, saying the men had been returning by bus from a pilgrimage to Iran.