Kidnapped Lebanese Pilgrims Released in Exchange for Pilots
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, reports Al Arabiya.
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, the report said.
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 reported.
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 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.
The civil war in neighboring Syria has led to sectarian clashes in Lebanon, especially since the Lebanon-based Hezbollah joined the fighting in Syria.
Hezbollah has been accused of participating in the slaughter of Syrian civilians, as well as other war crimes. In August, at least 20 people were killed by a large explosion in the Hezbollah stronghold in Beirut. A month earlier, over 50 people were wounded when a car bomb exploded in the same area.
The civil war in Syria has also had an effect on the country’s relations with Turkey. Turkey has lobbied for Assad's ouster and provided shelter for Syrian rebels seeking to overthrow him.
In response, the Syrian regime has threatened Turkey with the publication of a list of “targets” that could be hit if Western armies were to intervene in Assad’s battle against rebel armies. Among the targets were strategic positions in Turkey, along with sites in Israel and Cyprus.