Nine Lebanese pilgrims, who were kidnapped by rebels in Syria 17 months ago, arrived on Saturday in Beirut after being freed in exchange for two Turkish pilots seized in Lebanon in August.
The Shiite pilgrims were greeted by Lebanese ministers and other senior officials upon their arrival.
Crowds of relatives and friends gathered at the airport to celebrate their return.
In the same vein, the two Turkish Airlines pilots who were kidnapped in retaliation last August were freed earlier on in the day, the official Lebanese news agency NNA said.
The Turkish pilots, Pilot Murat Akpinar and co-pilot Murat Agca, were abducted by one of the Lebanese hostage’s families to press Turkey to use its influence with Syrian rebels to secure the Shiite pilgrims’ release.
The agreement 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 efforts which led to the deal.
It is not immediately clear if the 200 Syrians have also been released.
The release of the pilots, seized just outside Beirut international airport, came a day after the Shiite pilgrims were transferred to Turkey and handed to Lebanese officials in Istanbul.
“The two pilots have been released and are now in the hands of the Lebanese General Security Service in Beirut,” NNA said.
Lebanese officials later said they had boarded a flight home.
Relatives of the Lebanese hostages 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 taken as they headed home in May 2012, after visiting holy sites in Iran. Syrian rebels say they belonged to Hezbollah, which backs the Damascus regime.
Syria’s civil war has acquired a sectarian dimension that crosses regional borders.
Sunni Muslim countries such as Turkey largely back the Sunni-led uprising against four decades of Assad family rule.
Shiite Iran backs Assad, as does Hezbollah, which is Shiite and supported by Tehran. Assad is from the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam
(With Reuters and AFP)
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