Nine Lebanese men held hostage in Syria for 17 months arrived in Beirut after being freed in exchange for two Turkish Airlines pilots seized in Lebanon in August, seemingly completing only two parts out of a three-part deal.
The Lebanese men were greeted by cabinet ministers and other senior officals from across, the political spectrum in Lebanon on Saturday night, while the two pilots were freed on the same day as part of the deal.
As of Sunday morning, details of the release of at least 200 Syrian women jailed by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime – a deal brokered by Turkish and Qatari mediation teams – 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 largely opposed to any bartered peace.
The release of the pilots seized just outside Beirut international airport came a day after the Lebanese were transferred to Turkey and handed to Lebanese officials in Istanbul.
“It’s a wedding for us; it’s a celebration,” Lebanese Interior Minister Marwan Charbel said of the hostages being freed.
General Abbas Ibrahim, who heads Lebanon’s General Security, had travelled to Damascus on Friday to discuss a deal to free the hostages in exchange for Syrian prisoners, as demanded by rebel captors.
He returned on the same plane as the freed hostages. On his arrival at Beirut airport, he said he wished to thank Turkey, Qatar and Assad for making the release possible.
Following their arrival in Lebanon, the freed hostages were brought to their homes in Dahiyeh, in Beirut’s southern suburbs, where they were received by large crowds and celebratory gunfire.
Returning from pilgrimage
On the Turkish side, the pilots were greeted after landing by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other officials.
Murat Akpinar and Murat Agca were abducted on August 9 by a group which demanded Turkey use its influence with Syrian rebels to secure the release of the nine Lebanese.
Relatives of the Lebanese have repeatedly denied involvement in the kidnapping of the pilots, seized in an area considered to be supportive of the Shia movement Hezbollah, whose chief Hassan Nasrallah has denied any involvement.
The nine Shias were snatched in northern Syria by the Northern Storm brigade rebels group in May 2012. Their families said they were returning overland after visiting holy sites in Iran.
The rebels accused them of belonging to Hezbollah, which backs the Damascus regime.
Upon arriving to Lebanon, Abbas Shoaib, one of the freed hostages, told local press: “I was accused of being part of the Resistance Brigades, and I was accused of being a Hezbollah commander. I am not, but now I consider myself to be a soldier of Hassan Nasrallah.”
But Oobay Shahbander, a Syrian opposition activist from New York, told Al Jazeera that he believes the hostages were probably foreign fighters.
“These supposed pilgrims were in no shape or form innocent pilgrims that just happened to be in Syria on the front lines of the war – more than likely, they were Lebanese Hezbollah operatives working on behalf of the Iranian revolutionary guard,” he said speaking from New York.
He added that while there is no definitive proof, he pointed out past instances “where the Iranian revolutionary guards and the Lebanese Hezbollah used operatives under the guise of pilgrims.”
The abductions of the pilots prompted Turkey to urge its citizens to leave the country, and raised new fears about the impact of Syria’s conflict on neighbouring Lebanon.
About a week after the kidnapping, Lebanese authorities arrested three suspects, whose identities were not revealed.
Lebanon’s feuding political factions have been further split by the Syrian war, with Hezbollah and its allies backing Assad and their opponents supporting the Sunni-led rebellion against his family’s 40-year rule.
Clashes have periodically erupted between supporters and opponents of the regime in the northern city of Tripoli and in recent months dozens of people have been killed in rocket attacks and bombings elsewhere in the country, including the predominantly Shia neighbourhoods of Beirut’s southern suburbs.