‘The story is over’: Kidnapped Lebanese pilgrims in Syria freed after 1.5 years
Relatives of Lebanese Shiite pilgrims kidnapped last May in Syria show pictures during a protest in front of the Qatari embassy in Beirut on January 10, 2013. (AFP Photo)
Nine Shiite Lebanese pilgrims in Syria have finally been freed after being held hostage for nearly a year and a half. The release was reportedly part of a negotiated deal which is likely to lead to the release of two Turkish pilots being held in Lebanon.
A group of Syrian rebels were holding the Lebanese civilians hostage since May 2012. The kidnappers kept issuing new demands, claiming they had captured “subversives from the Lebanese Hezbollah party.”
The pilgrims were on a bus returning to Lebanon from Iran. In Aleppo province, their bus was stopped by a group of Syrian rebels who then abducted the passengers.
Two of the hostages were later released, but the other nine remained in custody.
The kidnapping exacerbated regional tensions, leading to the kidnapping of two Turkish Airlines pilots in Beirut, Lebanon.
The pilots were identified as Murat Akpinar and Murat Agca. The two men were taken hostage by Zuwaar al-Imam Rida group, which claimed responsibility, according to Lebanon's state news agency. It stated that the pilots would only be released when the Lebanese hostages are freed.
Lebanese Interior Minister Marwan Charbel confirmed this Friday that nine Lebanese hostages "are now in Turkish territories," AP reported. "The story is over," Reuters quoted him as saying. “In the next 24 hours, they will be with us [in Lebanon]."
Charbel also stated that he expects the two Turkish pilots to be released soon. "We insist that those who kidnapped the Turks release them," he said. The two pilots were seen for the very first time since the kidnapping on a video released Wednesday. "This is all part of one deal," Charbel added.
After news of the pilgrims’ release, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu stated that the two pilots are also close to being released. "Very favorable developments are under way concerning the two Turkish pilots, this matter has been largely settled," Davutoglu said on local television, highlighting that the men could be freed "within hours or days.”
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan telephoned the wife of one of the kidnapped pilots, stating that her husband and the other pilot would be released soon. "We are very close to reaching a happy ending, this could happen any time," state-run Anadolu Agency quoted Erdogan as saying.