BEIRUT: Nine Lebanese nationals kidnapped in Syria last year were released Friday, caretaker Interior Minister Marwan Charbel told The Daily Star, a day after Qatar vowed to intervene to bring the case of the pilgrims to a safe conclusion.
The release of the Lebanese in exchange for Syrian prisoners could have a positive impact on the case of two Turkish Airlines pilots who were kidnapped in Beirut this August.
“The [Lebanese] hostages have been released and are on their way to Turkey but we will only receive them during the handover,” Charbel said, referring to the kidnappers’ demand for the release of Syrian detainees held by the Damascus regime.
Security sources told The Daily Star that the nine were in Turkey and in “Turkish hands.”
Charbel said Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, the head of Lebanon’s General Security, would have to travel to Damascus from the Turkish capital and return to Ankara with the Syrian detainees.
“The handover will take place in Turkey and we think it could take 24 hours,” he said.
Ibrahim told Hezbollah’s Al-Manar that the nine Lebanese were in “safe hands.”
Earlier, Charbel said Ibrahim had presented Damascus with a new list of Syrian detainees that rebels are demanding be released in return for the nine Lebanese.
The rebel group had asked earlier in the year for the release of 127 female detainees including prominent opposition activist Tall al-Mlouh. Damascus agreed to release the female prisoners.
Ibrahim, tasked with following up on the case of the Lebanese hostages in Syria, has made several trips between Damascus and Ankara in recent days in order to negotiate with the mediators.
Earlier in the day, Qatar's Foreign Minister Khalid Bin Mohamed Al Attiyah told Al-Jazeera that his country’s mediation had resulted in the release of Lebanese hostages.
Earlier this week, President Michel Sleiman contacted Qatar’s emir, asking the Qatari leader to personally intervene and help secure the release of the captives.
The Gulf emir vowed to mediate and secure the release of the hostages at the soonest possible time.
Holding Lebanese flags and pictures of Ibrahim, relatives of the Lebanese hostages gathered at the Beirut southern suburb of Bir al-Abed, particularly outside the Badr Campaign office where the families frequently met to follow up on the case.
Women and children flooded the headquarters, congratulating each other on the long-awaited release.
“Finally, the case has ended and things are not up for negotiations,” Daniel Shoab, whose brother is one of the captives, told a local media station.
“Congratulations to Lebanon and we hope that this will be sealed with their final return,” he added.
On May 22 of last year, Eleven Shiite 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.
Relatives of the hostages have repeatedly urged Qatar and Turkey to help secure their loves ones’ release, arguing that Ankara and Doha could exert influence on the Syrian opposition.
On Aug. 9, in retaliation for the continued abduction of the Lebanese, two Turkish Airlines pilots were snatched on Beirut’s airport road while the two were headed to a hotel in the capital.
The kidnappers of pilot Murat Akpinar and his co-pilot Murat Agca demanded the release of the Lebanese pilgrims in exchange for the Turkish nationals.
Daniel said that the abductors of the Turkish pilots said they would release them as soon as the Lebanese return.