(Reuters) – Nine Lebanese citizens held by rebels in northern Syria since May 2012 have been released, caretaker Lebanese Interior Minister Marwan Charbel told Reuters on Friday.
Eleven Lebanese Shi’ites were seized last year by the Northern Storm brigade while on their way home from a pilgrimage to Shi’ite religious sites in Iran, their families said. Two were later released.
“The story is over,” Charbel said. “In the next 24 hours, they will be with us (in Lebanon).” He later told Lebanese radio that the men had crossed into southern Turkey.
Sunni rebels have for more than two years been fighting to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is from the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam.
The civil war has acquired a sectarian dimension, as Shi’ite Iran backs Assad and the Shi’ite Lebanese Hezbollah militia fights alongside the Syrian army against the rebellion.
The families of the nine Lebanese say they were religious pilgrims but their kidnappers accused them of belonging to Hezbollah.
Their return to Lebanon will raise hopes for the release of two Turkish pilots who were abducted in Beirut on August 9 by the families of the nine Lebanese, who accused Turkey of doing too little to win their release.
A Lebanese security source quoted a member of the Shi’ite family holding the pilots as saying the men, who appeared in a video this week saying they were in good health, were likely to be released soon.
Doha-based Al Jazeera television earlier on Friday quoted Qatar’s Foreign Minister Khalid bin Mohamed al-Attiyah as saying that the Lebanese were released after Qatari mediation.
Qatar has been a major political backer of the Syrian opposition during a civil war which has left over 100,000 dead, according to the United Nations.
Lebanese caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati said in a statement the release of the nine came about with the help of Qatar’s al-Attiyah, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
“We … thank all of the friendly countries who contributed to the release,” the statement quoted him as saying.
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