Turkish pilots free in swap deal
Two Turkish pilots kidnapped in Lebanon have been freed as part of a deal that saw nine abducted Lebanese pilgrims in Syria released from captivity, officials said.
Turkish Airlines pilots Murat Akpinar and Murat Agca had been held by militants since their kidnapping in August in Beirut.
The Turks' release is part of a negotiated hostage deal that included the freeing of the kidnapped pilgrims, as well as dozens of women held in Syrian government jails.
The nine Shiite pilgrims, kidnapped in May 2012 while on their way from Iran to Lebanon via Turkey and Syria, were expected to arrive in Beirut later on Saturday night. They are currently at Istanbul's international airport.
Residents of the mostly Shiite southern suburb of Beirut fired celebratory gunfire into the air, waved the Lebanese national flag and recited poetry in anticipation of seeing their loved ones.
Interior Minister Marwan Charbel said that the pilgrims should arrive at the international airport in Lebanon's capital, Beirut. "It's a wedding for us, it's a celebration," Mr Charbel said from the airport.
The pilgrims were held by Syrian rebels who initially demanded that the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah end its involvement in the Syria's civil war, now entering its third year. They later softened their demands to the release of imprisoned women held by security forces loyal to President Bashar Assad.
Assad has drawn support from Syria's ethnic and religious minorities, including Christians and members of his Alawite sect. The rebels are dominated by Syria's Sunni Muslim majority. Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah have played a critical role in recent battlefield victories for forces loyal to Assad. Hard-line Sunni fighters have backed the rebels.
The pilgrims' kidnapping set off a series of tit-for-tat kidnappings by Shiite clansmen inside Lebanon, including the two Turkish pilots in Beirut in August. The gunmen hoped to pressure Turkey to help release the pilgrims.
Turkey is believed to have close relations to some Syrian rebel groups.
Lebanese, Turkish and Syrian officials declined to immediately offer more details of the complicated, multilateral exchange. The deal appeared to be mostly mediated by the resource-rich Gulf state of Qatar, which has supported Syrian rebels in their battle against the Assad government. Palestinian officials also mediated.
It is one of the more ambitious negotiated settlements to come out of Syria's civil war, where the warring sides remain largely opposed to any bartered peace. But it suggested that the parties - and their regional backers - were more prepared to deal with each other than at any other previous time in the conflict.