Lebanese pilgrims abducted in Syria sent to Turkey, Turkish pilots to be freed
ISTANBUL / BEIRUT
Screen capture from a Youtube video shows Murat Akpinar, one of the pilots. AFP photoThe nine Lebanese Shiite pilgrims who were kidnapped in Syria in May 2012 are "in safe hands" and delivered to Turkey, Lebanon’s interior minister announced on Oct. 18.
“The nine Lebanese pilgrims abducted in Syria’s Azaz region will be in Turkey in the coming hours,” Marwan Charbel said, adding the two Turkish pilots kidnapped in Beirut two months ago are also about to be released.
"The story is over. In the next 24 hours, [the nine Lebanese pilgrims] will be with us," Charbel told Reuters. He later told Lebanese radio that the released hostages had crossed into Turkey.
“The Turkish pilots’ release will come shortly,” Charbel also said.
The development was also confirmed by the Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, who said the pilots will be back to Turkey shortly. “The matter has been solved to a great extent. We still will keep using caution until our pilots are delivered,” Davutoğlu said.
Lebanese caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati said in a statement that the release of the nine pilgrims came about with the help of the Turkish foreign minister, Qatar's Foreign Minister Khalid bin Mohamed al-Attiyah and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
"We thank all of the friendly countries who contributed to the release," the statement quoted him as saying.
The announcement came as Lebanon’s security chief traveled to Turkey to hold talks over the fate of the Turkish pilots who were kidnapped two months ago, before moving on to Damascus.
Security Chief Abbas Ibrahim conducted talks with Turkish intelligence agency representatives and other Turkish officials, with discussions focusing both on the pilots and the nine Lebanese Shiite pilgrims who were kidnapped in Syria, May 2012.
The group responsible for the kidnapping of the pilots also released a statement around the time of Ibrahim’s visit, saying they would be willing to exchange the pilots in return for the Lebanese pilgrims.
Eleven Lebanese pilgrims were seized last year by a Syrian rebel group while on their way home from a pilgrimage to Shiite religious sites in Iran, their families said. Two were later released.
Deal can be reached at any moment: PM
Shortly before, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan told the wife of Murat Akpınar, one of the abducted pilots, that diplomatic efforts could bear fruit at any moment.
“We are very close to a happy ending and we can achieve a result at any moment,” Erdoğan told Dilek Akpınar, while expressing his best wishes for the Feast of the Sacrifice (Kurban Bayramı), the Anadolu Agency reported.
A Lebanese broadcaster recently released video footage showing the two pilots, Murat Akpınar and Murat Ağca, who were kidnapped Aug. 9 in a majority Shiite area of Beirut.