BEIRUT: Lebanon’s religious leaders and politicians Sunday praised the release of nine Lebanese hostages held captive in Syria as an event that had brought the Lebanese together in a rare show of unity.
Meanwhile, Syrian Foreign Affairs Minister Walid al-Moallem contacted caretaker Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour to congratulate him on the the pilgrims’ safe return to Lebanon, the National News Agency reported.
Moallem stressed that “ Syria will spare no effort in helping Lebanon,” the NNA reported.
Mansour thanked Syria for its stance and cooperation which resulted in the release of the nine.
President Michel Sleiman thanked regional countries for their efforts in securing the release of pilgrims, who were held hostage by Syrian rebels for 17 months.
Sleiman contacted Turkish President Abdullah Gul to congratulate him on the safe return of the two Turkish Airlines pilots and thanked him for his efforts in releasing the Lebanese.
He highlighted “the solidarity of the Lebanese and their united humanitarian and national feelings on this matter away from any political or sectarian alignment.”
In congratulating the Lebanese hostages on their return home, Sleiman said: “The state had exerted all its efforts to secure the release of the Lebanese kidnapped in Azaz.
“There is big joy today with the success of these efforts which brought them back to their families and beloved ones under the wing of the beloved homeland.”
He thanked caretaker Interior Minister Marwan Charbel, the ministerial committee tasked with the case and Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, head of General Security, for maintaining contacts with Turkish, Qatari, Syrian and Palestinian authorities which all cooperated to finalize the conditions of the swap agreement.
Speaker Nabih Berri and Ibrahim also thanked Qatar for its role in helping the release of the nine Lebanese.
Sleiman expressed hope for the release of Aleppo’s Greek Orthodox Archbishop Paul Yazigi and Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Yohanna Ibrahim, who were abducted in April by armed men near the Turkish border. He also called for determining the fate of thousands of Lebanese who went missing during the 1975-90 Civil War.
A three-way swap deal resulted Saturday in the release of the nine Lebanese, two Turkish Airlines pilots kidnapped in Beirut in retaliation for the Lebanese’ abduction and over 100 female detainees in Syrian prisons.
Eleven Lebanese Shiite pilgrims were abducted near the Aleppo district town of Azaz on May 22 last year as they traveled home from a pilgrimage in Iran. Two of the pilgrims were released last year.
Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri also hailed the release of the hostages, praising Qatar, Turkey and Ibrahim especially for their role.
Former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora also congratulated the hostages on their freedom, while criticizing their kidnappers, saying such actions undermined the Syrian revolution.
“The abduction was not in the interest of the Syrian revolution and did not serve the cause of the wounded and oppressed Syrian people,” said Siniora, the head of the parliamentary Future bloc. He said the abduction benefited the Syrian regime, which used “this deplorable crime” to launch campaigns against the rebels.
Grand Mufti Sheikh Mohammad Rashid Qabbani, Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai and Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea all expressed their joy over the release of the pilgrims, but called for the two bishops to be freed as well, urging the Lebanese government to make necessary contacts to secure their freedom.