20 Oct 2013

Lebanese hostages return home to jubilant welcome

1:01 pm on 20 October 2013

Nine Lebanese citizens abducted by rebels in Syria last year have arrived back in Beirut a day after being freed.

Their release is part of a complex swap involving the freeing of two Turkish pilots who were kidnapped in Lebanon in August in apparent retaliation.

Turkish Airlines pilots Murat Akpinar and Murat Agca have returned to Istanbul, where they were welcomed by the prime minister.

A third part of the hostage negotiations involved the release of a number of female prisoners being held by the Syrian government, but the BBC reports it is not yet clear whether that has taken place.

The Lebanese group, all men, were released by their captors on Friday evening and driven to Istanbul, from where they flew to Beirut.

At the international airport they were greeted by friends and family, as well as politicians and religious leaders.

Some of the former hostages described kept in dark and windowless rooms and hearing heavy fighting.

The nine were among 11 people seized while making their way back to Lebanon after a tour of holy sites in Iran. Two of them escaped.

They were reportedly being held in northern Syria by fighters from a Sunni-based rebel group opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The rebels insisted their hostages were fighters with the Lebanese Shi'ite militant group Hezbollah, and were demanding the release of women detainees held by the Syrian regime in exchange.

In August, a previously unknown group called Zuwwar al-Imam Rida said it had kidnapped the two Turkish pilots seized near Beirut's international aiport, and that they would be freed if the Lebanese group were set free.

It demanded that Turkey used its influence with Syrian rebels to make the swap possible. Turkey has consistently backed Syria's Sunni rebels, while much of Lebanon's Shi'ite community supports President Bashar al-Assad.