Nine Lebanese pilgrims held hostage for over a year by Syrian rebels headed home Saturday from Turkey and a security source said two Turkish pilots abducted earlier this year in Beirut have been handed over to authorities and would soon be flown back to their country.
“The plane will take off from Turkey on its way to Lebanon and on board are the [Lebanese] hostages,” caretaker Interior Minister Marwan Charbel told local media at Rafik Hariri International Airport in Beirut, according to Daily Star.
On May 22, 2012, eleven Shia pilgrims were kidnapped by a rebel group on their way from a pilgrimage in Iran near the Aleppo District of Azaz. Two were released in the following months.
Security chief Brig. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, who announced the release of the pilgrims Friday night, took charge of the nine Lebanese in Turkey before boarding the flight to Beirut.
The return of the hostages to Lebanon would see the subsequent return of the two Turkish pilots kidnapped in Beirut in August of this year, a security source said.
“The two Turkish pilots were handed over to Lebanese authorities and will be flown out after the arrival of the nine pilgrims,” the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told The Daily Star.
A Qatari plane has also landed at Beirut's airport to carry the two Turkish pilots who were nabbed in Lebanon to their country after they were freed by their abductors, Naharnet reported.
On Aug. 9, in retaliation for the continued abduction of the Lebanese pilgrims, Turkish Airlines pilot Murat Akpinar and his co-pilot Murat Agca were snatched on Beirut’s airport road while the two were headed to a hotel in the capital. Their kidnappers demanded the release of the nine Lebanese.
Doha-based Al Jazeera television earlier on Friday quoted Qatar's Foreign Minister Khalid bin Mohamed al-Attiyah as saying that the Lebanese were released after Qatari mediation.
Qatar has been a major political backer of the Syrian opposition during a civil war which has left over 100,000 dead, according to the United Nations.
Lebanese caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati said in a statement the release of the nine came about with the help of Qatar's al-Attiyah, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
"We … thank all of the friendly countries who contributed to the release," the statement quoted him as saying.
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