Turkish special agents launched a covert operation in Syria to rescue a group of Lebanese pilgrims held hostage for 17 months who were then swapped for two kidnapped Turkish pilots, a newspaper reported Monday.
A team from the National Intelligence Organisation (MIT) carried out a "movie-like operation" on Syrian soil to save the Shiite pilgrims who were caught in fighting between Al-Qaeda fighters and rebels, the pro-government Sabah reported.
The nine pilgrims arrived in Beirut on Saturday after being freed in an exchange that also saw the release of two Turkish Airlines pilots who were seized in Lebanon in August.
However, Turkish foreign ministry sources denied any link between the rescue of the Lebanese and the release of the pilots and there has been no official confirmation of the operation in Syria.
The Shiite pilgrims were snatched as they headed home overland in May 2012 after visiting holy sites in Iran, with rebels charging that they belonged to Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah, which backs the Damascus regime.
The men were transferred to the northern town of Azaz near the Turkish border early this month, Sabah said, citing unnamed "high-ranking" sources.
As intense fighting raged between Syrian rebels and an Al-Qaeda front group in the border region, the MIT sought Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's approval for a rescue operation for the pilgrims.
The paper did not say why Turkey would get involved in a rescue on foreign soil of third-country nationals and declined to link the operation with the fate of the Turkish pilots.
Pilot Murat Akpinar and co-pilot Murat Agca were abducted outside the airport in Beirut by a group calling itself Zuwwar Imam al-Rida, which demanded Turkey use its influence with Syrian rebels to secure the release of the nine Shiites.
Sabah's report comes as the MIT and its chief Hakan Fidan in the spotlight over allegations that Turkey is letting arms and radical fighters flow into Syria indiscriminately across its long border.
Report: Turkish agents rescued Lebanese hostages in Syria