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NOW/AFP

Freed Lebanese pilgrims, Turkish
pilots arrive in Beirut, Istanbul

“The situation was much worse than you can imagine and we have paid a very high price.”

Lebanese pilgrims greeted by relatives upon arrival in Beirut

The nine Lebanese Shiite pilgrims who were abducted in Syria’s Azaz last year and two Turkish pilots who were kidnapped in Lebanon in August arrived in Beirut and Istanbul respectively on Saturday.

 

General Security Director General Abbas Ibrahim, who accompanied the pilgrims from Turkey to Lebanon, said after arriving in Beirut that “what happened is a victory for Lebanon.”

 

“We thank Qatar, Turkey and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad,” he also stated, adding that “the case is not over yet, we are still awaiting the release of the two Orthodox bishops abducted in Syria.”

 

Earlier in the day, President Michel Suleiman phoned the Qatari Prince Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad and thanked him for the efforts he made to release the Lebanese pilgrims.

 

Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Miqati expressed his joy for the “happy ending of this humanitarian issue,” and thanked “all the officials and states who have played a role in reaching this happy ending.”

 

Abbas Sheayb, one of the released pilgrims, said upon his arrival to Lebanon: “The situation was much worse than you can imagine and we have paid a very high price.”

 

Another one of the released men said in a televised interview: “We were detained in a humid room, near the Turkish borders,” adding that “nobody can imagine the amount of suffering we went through.”

 

Meanwhile, two Turkish pilots, who were abducted in Lebanon, were freed in exchange for the Lebanese pilgrims’ release.

 

They arrived in Beirut’s Rafiq Hariri International Airport where Turkish Ambassador to Lebanon Inan Ozyildiz received them and accompanied them back to Turkey.

 

Following the pilots’ release, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu tweeted: “I thank Lebanese Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri, caretaker Prime Minister Najib Miqati and caretaker Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour with whom I have met several times in the past two months.”

 

“Also, my friend the Qatari Foreign Minister Khaled bin Mohammad al-Atiyyah has made a lot of effort for the pilots’ release and had a big part in this joyful result.”

 

Qatari mediation had secured the release of the Lebanese pilgrims abducted in Syria on Friday evening, Qatar’s foreign ministry said.

 

In May 2012, eleven Lebanese pilgrims were abducted in Azaz in the Aleppo district while returning from a pilgrimage to Iran, two of whom were released in following months.

 

The families of the pilgrims accused Turkey of sponsoring the kidnapping and the Lebanese government of inaptness in this regard.

 

After repeated failures to secure the release of the pilgrims, a group kidnapped a Turkish Airlines pilot and his co-pilot on August 9 on the Beirut International Airport road to demand Turkey use its influence with Syria's rebels, who it backs, to free the nine Lebanese Shiites.

 

Following the release of the pilgrims, Turkey said the detention of two Turkish Airlines pilots kidnapped in Beirut in August was close to ending.

 

 “Very favorable developments are under way concerning the two Turkish pilots. This matter has been largely settled,” Davutoglu said on local television on Friday.

 

The relatives of the nine Lebanese pilgrims have denied responsibility for kidnapping the pilots.

Lebanese pilgrims greeted by relatives upon arrival in Beirut

We thank Qatar, Turkey and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.