BEIRUT: Nine Lebanese held hostage in Syria for over 16 months returned home Saturday from Turkey following mediation efforts which also saw the release and return of two Turkish Airlines pilots who were kidnapped in Beirut over two months ago.
The release of the Lebanese and Turks was part of a three-way swap deal that also involved the release of dozens of Syrian women detained by the regime of President Bashar Assad.
Jubilant crowds took to the streets of Beirut’s southern suburbs, where most of the Lebanese citizens hail from, upon hearing the news of the imminent return of the nine Lebanese.
Launching fireworks in celebration, many waved Hezbollah flags and posters of the party’s secretary-general, Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah.
Posters of General Security’s Brig. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, who for months shuttled to and from regional capitals to follow up the case, and caretaker Interior Minister Marwan Charbel were also on display.
“We paid a hefty price,” one of the released hostages, shaking and with a cane in one hand, told reporters on the runway minutes after the plane taxied to a stop at around 10.45 p.m.
Ibrahim, the first to leave the Qatar Airlines aircraft, hailed the return of the hostages and thanked Qatar, Turkey and Assad for their efforts in securing the release of the Lebanese.
“Congratulations to Lebanon, not just the hostages,” he told reporters at Rafik Hariri International Airport, where relatives, officials, MPs and envoys from Lebanon’s various political parties all waited to greet the returned hostages.
Prior to the arrival, circulated photos of Ibrahim on board the plane with the hostages at Sabiha Gokcen airport in Istanbul had sparked both relief and disbelief in the relatives at the Beirut airport.
"We'll believe it [that the hostages have returned] when we see it,” one relative had told The Daily Star.
On May 22, 2012, eleven Shiite Lebanese were kidnapped near the Aleppo District of Azaz by a Syrian rebel group on their way from a pilgrimage in Iran. Two were released in the following months.
Ibrahim, who announced the release of the remaining pilgrims Friday night, took charge of the nine in Turkey Saturday.
The departure of the plane, which families had expected to land in Beirut at 7 p.m., was delayed for a period of two hours due to what Ibrahim described as “logistical reasons.”
The return of the hostages to Lebanon came simultaneously with the release and return of Turkish Airlines pilots Murat Akpinar and Murat Agca who were kidnapped in August on Beirut’s airport road. Their kidnappers had linked the release of the Turks to that of the pilgrims.
Negotiations to ensure the release of the pilots included the payment of a ransom, a security source told The Daily Star on condition of anonymity.
Local media reports Saturday said the Syrian regime had released Syrian women detainees as part of the deal. The kidnappers of the nine Lebanese had earlier in the year demanded the release of 127 female detainees in Syrian jails, including prominent opposition activist Tall al-Mlouh, as part of a swap.
The two pilots arrived at the Beirut airport at 9 p.m. on board a Lebanese Army helicopter that took off from the Riyaq military airbase in the Bekaa Valley, east Lebanon.
Agca and Akpinar were met upon arrival in Beirut by Turkish Ambassador to Lebanon Inan Ozyildiz and Charbel, representing President Michel Sleiman, before boarding a plane headed to Istanbul, where the pair were later greeted by Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan.
Qatar’s mediation efforts appeared pivotal in the release of the hostages in Syria.
On Friday, Qatar’s foreign minister said his Gulf country’s efforts had led to the release of the Lebanese, in a development that came days after Sleiman urged Qatar’s emir to personally intervene in the matter.
According to a statement from Sleiman’s office Saturday, the Lebanese leader called Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamid al-Thani, thanking him for his efforts in securing the release of the Lebanese hostages.
Sleiman also received a phone call from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who congratulated the Lebanese leader on the safe return of the Lebanese abductees.
“Sleiman thanked Abbas for the call as well as his efforts to see a conclusion to this case,” according to the statement from Baabda Palace.
Commenting on the negotiation process to win the freedom of the pilgrims, Charbel said: “We have faced so many difficulties over the past one-and-a half year [of negotiations] that we could not talk about. But my efforts and those of Maj. Gen [Abbas] Ibrahim were fruitful.”