Nine Shi'ite pilgrims from Lebanon kidnapped in Syria were freed late Friday night as part of a negotiated hostage deal that could see two Turkish pilots held by Lebanese militants released, officials said.
The complicated three-way deal also potentially includes the release of female prisoners now held by the embattled government of Syrian President Bashar Assad. While details about the deal remained murky, 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. Two were later released, but the nine had been held since, causing friction in the region and sparking the August kidnapping in Beirut that saw two Turkish Airlines pilots abducted.
Lebanese Interior Minister Marwan Charbel told The Associated Press that the nine Lebanese hostages "are now in Turkish territories." Charbel said he expects two Turkish pilots to be released in Lebanon soon and the Syrian government will release a number of female detainees.
"We insist that those who kidnapped the Turks release them," Charbel said, referring to the pilots. The two pilots appeared in a video on Wednesday, the first since they were kidnapped.
"This is all part of one deal," Charbel said by telephone.
Asked when he expects the freed Lebanese to come home, he said "in the coming 24 to 48 hours."
In Turkey, the state-run Anadolu Agency quoted Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu as saying "there are positive developments" concerning the hostages and that the issue had "mostly been resolved." The agency did not immediately provide any further details, though a previous story said Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the wife of one of the kidnapped pilots to say the two would be released soon.
"We are very close to reaching a happy ending, this could happen any time," the agency quoted Erdogan as saying.
The pilgrims were kidnapped in May 2012 while on their way from Iran to Lebanon through Turkey and Syria. Militants kidnapped them shortly after they crossed the Turkish border into Syria. Two of the pilgrims were later released with Turkey's assistance.
In Beirut's southern suburbs, the families of the nine Lebanese gathered Friday night at a travel agency that they went to Iran with, some of them weeping.
The two Turkish Airlines pilots, previously identified as Murat Akpinar and Murat Agca, were kidnapped after flying into Beirut from Istanbul on Aug. 9. Lebanon's state news agency reported that a group called Zuwaar al-Imam Rida claimed responsibility for the kidnapping. The group said the pilots "will only be released when the Lebanese hostages in Syria return," referring to the Shi'ite pilgrims.
The commander of the rebel brigade that kidnapped the pilgrims, Ammar al-Dadikhi, told the AP last September that he was holding them captive to try to force Lebanon's Shi'ite militant group Hezbollah to stop supporting Assad's government.
Syria's rebels are predominantly Sunnis, and are widely supported by Lebanon's own Sunni community. Hezbollah fighters have played a critical role in recent battlefield victories for forces loyal to Assad.
Details about the negotiated deal remained vague Friday night, including who was responsible for coordinating across different factions in the Syrian civil war. Satellite news channel Al-Jazeera quoted Qatar's Foreign Minister Khalid bin Mohamed al-Attiyah as saying the tiny Gulf nation negotiated the release of the nine pilgrims.
It also remained unclear what female prisoners the Syrian government would release under any potential deal. Syrian officials could not be immediately reached for comment Friday night.
At least 100,000 Syrians have been killed in the country's civil war, now in its third year. While world powers recently helped negotiate a deal for Syria's stockpile of chemical weapons to be itemized and destroyed, bringing the government and rebel factions to peace talks remains difficult. Syria's government this week floated Nov. 23-24 as possible dates for talks on a political solution to the conflict, though there was no agreement on the ground rules for negotiations and the main Western-backed opposition hasn't decided whether to attend.
Meanwhile, the war continues. Regime forces and Syrian rebels fighting for control of the small but strategic town of Tal Aran in the country's embattled northern province of Aleppo have killed at least 20 people, most of them civilians, activists said Friday. Rebels also killed at least 30 Syrian soldiers, including ten who were executed after they were captured, said the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
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