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Syrian rebels release 9 Lebanese hostages

October 19, 2013|By Patrick J. McDonnell
  • An opposition fighter holds a position on the front line in Syria's northeastern city of Deir Ezzor this week.
An opposition fighter holds a position on the front line in Syria's… (Ahmad Aboud, AFP/Getty…)

BEIRUT — Nine Lebanese hostages held for more than a year by Syrian  rebels have been released, according to multiple reports late Friday, ending a protracted crisis that heightened regional sectarian tensions and was linked to the  subsequent kidnapping of two Turkish Airlines pilots in the Lebanese capital.

Various news agencies here quoted Lebanon’s interior minister, Marwan Charbel, confirming the liberation of the hostages, who were reported to be safe in Turkey, which shares a long border with Syria.  Lebanese Prime Minister  Najib Mikati issued a statement congratulating the freed hostages and their families.

There was no immediate word on reports that prisoners held by Syrian authorities would be freed in exchange for the release of the Lebanese hostages. Opposition forces had earlier demanded the release of 127 female prisoners in Syria before  freeing  the nine Lebanese nationals.

In Turkey, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu was quoted by the official Andalou news agency saying that “positive developments” were reported in the related case of the two Turkish Airlines pilots snatched in Beirut after their flight's arrival from Istanbul.

On Aug. 9, gunmen here stopped a minivan and kidnapped the  pair as the Turkish Airlines crew was traveling from the airport to a  hotel. Lebanese authorities have said the kidnapping was likely in retaliation for the abduction of the nine Lebanese. Turkey has been a major supporter of Syrian rebel  forces.

The release of the Lebanese  citizens capped intense diplomatic efforts among Lebanese, Syrian and Turkish authorities and the reported mediation of the foreign ministry of Qatar, which, like Turkey, has long been a crucial backer  of anti-government forces in Syria. The kidnapping has been a major domestic issue in Lebanon, where a fragile government holds power.

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.

The nine were among eleven Lebanese citizens seized by a Syrian rebel group 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 good will.

Syrian rebels alleged that the hostages were operatives of Hezbollah, the Lebanense Shiite group that is closely allied with the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Hezbollah officials and relatives of the hostages denied that the nine had any link with the group. 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 tensions have been a major irritant in  the Syrian civil war, now in its third year. President Assad is a member of the Alawite sect, considered an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Shiite-dominated Iran is among Assad’s closest foreign allies.

Reports in the Lebanese press indicated that family members  of the nine  were celebrating late Friday in the southern suburbs of Beirut, home to many of the now-released hostages. For months, the hostages’ kin had staged demonstrations demanding that Turkey, Gulf states and other backers of the Syrian rebels put pressure on their allies to release the kidnapped men.

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