Nine Shia pilgrims from Lebanon abducted in Syria last year have been freed and transferred to Turkey as part of a negotiated hostage deal that could see two Turkish pilots held by Lebanese fighters released, officials said.
The complicated three-way deal also potentially includes the release of female prisoners now held by the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
While details about the deal remained unclear, it appeared to represent one of the more ambitious negotiated settlements to come out of Syria's civil war, now entering its third year and being fought by forces tearing apart the region and largely opposed to any bartered peace.
The pilgrims were part of a group of 11 hostages taken by a rebel faction in northern Syria in May 2012.
The group will return to Lebanon on board a private Qatari jet accompanied by Khaled al-Attiyah, the Qatari foreign minister, and Abbas Ibrahim, the head of Lebanon's general security, Lebanese TV channels reported on Saturday.
Al-Attiyah said on Friday that his country had helped secure the release of the hostages, who were captured in Aleppo in by the Northern Storm brigade, an affiliate of the Free Syrian Army. Two were later released.
Their families said they were returning from a pilgrimage to Shia Muslims sites in Iran when they were captured.
'Sad page for Lebanon'
Najib Mikati, the Lebanese prime minister, said in a statement that the former hostages were "in a secure place and are ready to enter Lebanon".
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Mikati extended congratulations to the free Lebanese, their families and the whole country on turning "a sad page for Lebanon. We thank all those who contributed to achieving their freedom, brothers and friendly nations".
Rebels accused the captured men of being members of Hezbollah, and the commander of the brigade, Ammar al-Dadikhli, told the AP news agency last September that he was holding them captive to try to force Hezbollah to stop supporting the Assad government.
Relatives of the Lebanese hostages gathered on Friday night in Beirut's southern neighbourhood of Bir al-Abed to celebrate the long-awaited release of their loved ones.
"We are very happy, and we thank all the people who helped with this humanitarian step," said Mona Tormos, wife of Ali Tormos, one of the released hostages.
The hostage crisis caused friction in the region and triggered the August kidnapping in Beirut that saw two Turkish Airlines pilots abducted.
The pilots, previously identified as Murat Akpinar and Murat Agca, were kidnapped after flying into Beirut from Istanbul on August 9.
The hostages' return to Lebanon will raise hopes for the release of Turkish pilots.
"Very favourable developments are under way concerning the two Turkish pilots. This matter has been largely settled," Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said on local television, adding that the men could be freed "within hours or days".
Al Jazeera's Andrew Simmons, reporting from Beirut, said it remains unclear where the group of Lebanese pilgrims is currently located.
"The Turks and the Lebanese expect the return of the Lebanese pilgrims and the release of the Turkish pilots all within the next 24 to 48 hours," our correspondent said.
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies