Syria rebels free Lebanese hostages; Turkish pilots freed in Lebanon
BEIRUT — Nine Lebanese hostages freed after being held by Syrian rebels for more than a year arrived to a tumultuous welcome in Beirut late Saturday, capping a complex deal that also resulted in the release of two Turkish pilots kidnapped in Lebanon and the reported freeing of scores of prisoners from Syrian jails.
About an hour after the nine ex-hostages were mobbed by relatives and other well-wishers at a VIP lounge at Beirut’s Rafik Hariri International Airport, images on Turkish television showed an aircraft carrying the two Turkish Airlines pilots arriving at Istanbul Ataturk Airport.
The Lebanese had been flown from Istanbul to Beirut, while the Turks were whisked off by jet in the opposite direction, from Beirut to Istanbul.
The convoluted case has highlighted how the Syrian civil war, now in its third year, has spread instability and sectarian tension throughout the Middle East.
The sequence of events resulting in the releases unfolded Friday and Saturday after months of sensitive, closed-door negotiations and shuttle diplomacy involving officials and intelligence operatives of at least four governments, along with Syrian rebel commanders.
Playing a crucial mediating role was the Foreign Ministry of the Persian Gulf state of Qatar, which, like Turkey, has been a supporter of the antigovernment forces in Syria. Qatari jets flew the freed Lebanese to Beirut and the liberated Turkish pilots to Istanbul.
A top Lebanese security official, Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, who heads the nation’s General Security bureau, reportedly made several recent trips to Syria and Turkey in an intensified effort to craft a deal to release the nine Lebanese men.
“Congratulations to Lebanon, not just the hostages,” Ibrahim, who accompanied the nine former captives from Turkey back to Lebanon, told reporters at the chaotic scene at the Beirut airport.
The 17-month-crisis shook Lebanon’s fragile, multi-sectarian democracy, which is reeling from the spillover effects of the war in neighboring Syria.
Ecstatic officials, family members, clerics and others thronged the two airports.
Earlier, news of the hostages’ release had prompted displays of fireworks and street celebrations in the southern suburbs of Beirut, where the families of many of the nine men live.
The abduction in August of the two Turkish pilots by Lebanese kidnappers, apparently in retaliation for the taking of the nine Lebanese, had provoked outrage in Turkey and heightened criticism of the country’s support for the rebels fighting to oust the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, architect of Turkey’s controversial Syria policy, was on hand at the airport in Istanbul on Saturday to greet the two released pilots.
The nine Lebanese were reportedly released late Friday in neighboring Turkey. That set the stage for the release Saturday of the two pilots to the Turkish ambassador in Lebanon. Under extremely tight security, the pilots were reportedly flown by helicopter to the Beirut airport and then put on a plane to Istanbul.
The status of another facet of the deal — the reported release of scores of women in Syrian jails and prisons — was not immediately clear. Opposition forces had demanded freedom for 127 female prisoners in Syria in exchange for releasing the nine Lebanese captives. Some reports indicated that as many as 200 Syrian prisoners could be freed, but there was no immediate confirmation.
The nine Lebanese men were among 11 Lebanese citizens seized by a Syrian rebel faction in May 2012 near the Syrian border town of Azaz, part of the northern province of Aleppo. Two hostages were later released in what the rebels called an act of goodwill. Rebel-held areas of Syria have seen an epidemic of kidnappings for political, monetary and sectarian motives.
Syrian rebels alleged that the hostages were operatives of Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite Muslim militant group that is closely allied with Assad. Hezbollah officials and relatives of the hostages denied that the nine had any formal link with Hezbollah. The hostages’ families said all were pilgrims returning to Lebanon from a visit to Shiite shrines in Iran.
Syrian rebels are mostly Sunni Muslims, the majority sect in Syria. Sunni-Shiite tension has been a major irritant in the Syrian civil war. Assad is a member of the Alawite sect, considered an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Shiite-dominated Iran is among Assad’s closest foreign allies.
For months, relatives and supporters of the nine Lebanese hostages have staged demonstrations demanding that Turkey, gulf states and other backers of the Syrian rebels put pressure on their allies to release the kidnapped men.
On Aug. 9, gunmen in Beirut waylaid a minivan carrying a Turkish Airlines crew and kidnapped the two pilots, Murat Akpinar and Murat Agca, as they were traveling from the airport to a hotel after their flight had landed in Beirut. Lebanese authorities have said the kidnapping was retaliation for the abduction of the nine Lebanese. Officials in Lebanon had long anticipated that the pilots would be released once a deal was made to free the Lebanese captives.
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