Freed captives brought back to Lebanon

Freed captives brought back to Lebanon

Freed captives brought back to Lebanon

Kin of Lebanese pilgrims abducted in Syria enjoys after they are released. AFP photo

A group of Lebanese Shiite pilgrims who had been kidnapped in Syria were freed May 25 and are on their way back to Beirut, Lebanon’s prime minister and an Islamist cleric who brokered their release said.

The Lebanese Shiite men were among a group of pilgrims returning to Lebanon from Iran on May 22 when gunmen stopped their bus after it crossed into Syria from Turkey. The kidnapping had triggered protests in Shiite areas of Beirut and raised fears it could ignite sectarian conflict in Lebanon.

Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati received confirmation from Turkey that the hostages had been released, an aide said. “The prime minister received a call from [Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet] Davutoğlu [saying] the Lebanese hostages in Syria are well and are on their way to Beirut,” an aide to Mikati told Reuters.

“We have received confirmation that [the kidnapped pilgrims] have been freed. They have arrived in Turkey and should return home today,” Lebanese Health Minister Ali Hassan Khalil said. The Turkish Foreign Ministry, however, has not made any comment on the matter.

Sheikh Ibrahim al-Zoaby, the cleric who brokered their release, and Lebanese officials said there were 11 hostages in total, after earlier conflicting accounts of their numbers. The gunmen who kidnapped the pilgrims had released the women traveling on the bus, some of whom said the kidnappers wanted to swap the hostages for Syrian insurgents in Syrian government custody.

Residents of the Hezbollah-stronghold suburb south of Beirut where the freed hostages live flocked to the streets to celebrate with the men’s families. Women ululated and threw rice in celebration, as fireworks flared overhead. The freed hostages will fly to Beirut on a private plane belonging to former Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, said an aide to Hariri, a political foe of Hezbollah, which mobilized street protests against a government he led and helped bring it down last year.

On May 22, Lebanese state television channel NNA accused the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) of having kidnapped the pilgrims. The FSA denied the claim. On May 24 the rebel army said it was making “every effort” to locate and release the Lebanese pilgrims, who were abducted in Syria’s northern province of Aleppo. The FSA issued a statement on May 24 outlining its goals and principles, saying the “protection of peaceful protests” is its top priority.

Meanwhile, the former head of the Syrian National Council, Burhan Ghalioun, said a deeply divided opposition has failed the Syrian people. In Damascus, a new parliament, again dominated by the ruling Baath party, held its first session on May 24. In the meantime, thousands of anti-regime protesters gathered in Damascus, Aleppo and the southern Daraa province, according to activists. Syrian forces are shelling opposition strongholds, namely the Qusour and Jobar neighborhoods in Homs province, and killed six civilians on May 25 in Hama and Damascus, activists said.

Compiled from AFP, AP and Reuters stories by the Daily News staff.

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