Oct 20, 2013 11:09 AM by Associated Press
BEIRUT (AP) - Nine Lebanese pilgrims held by Syrian rebels were returning Saturday to Beirut as part of a negotiated three-way hostage deal, the Lebanese interior minister said.
Their release ends a year-and-a-half ordeal for the Shiite men, kidnapped in May 2012 while on their way from Iran to Lebanon through Turkey and Syria. It also concluded part of an ambitious swap that officials say will include the release of two Turkish Airlines pilots held by militants in Lebanon and female prisoners held by Syria's government.
Residents of the mostly Shiite southern suburb of Beirut fired celebratory gunfire into the air, waved the Lebanese national flag and recited poetry in anticipation of seeing their loved ones Saturday. Interior Minister Marwan Charbel said that the pilgrims should arrive at the international airport in Lebanon's capital, Beirut, within the coming hours.
"It's a wedding for us, it's a celebration," Charbel said from the airport.
The pilgrims were held by Syrian rebels who initially demanded that the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah end its involvement in the Syria's civil war, now entering its third year. They later softened their demands to the release of imprisoned women held by security forces loyal to President Bashar Assad.
The men's kidnapping set off a series of tit-for-tat kidnappings by Shiite clansmen inside Lebanon, including the two Turkish pilots in Beirut in August. The gunmen hoped to pressure Turkey to help release the pilgrims.
Turkey is believed to have close relations to some Syrian rebel groups. All three groups of captives: the Lebanese pilgrims, the Turkish pilots and the Syrian women in prison are meant to be released in coming days as part of the negotiated deal.
It wasn't immediately clear Saturday if the Turks or Syrians had been freed.
"They will all be freed soon, God willing," Charbel said.
Lebanese, Turkish and Syrian officials declined to immediately offer more details of the complicated, multilateral exchange. The deal appeared to be mostly mediated by the resource-rich Gulf state of Qatar, which has supported Syrian rebels in their battle against the Assad government. Palestinian officials also mediated.
The Lebanese pilgrims crossed into Turkey late Friday.