Last updated: 25 May, 2012

Lebanese pilgrims abducted in Syria are released

A group of Lebanese Shiite pilgrims kidnapped in Syria were freed on Friday and arrived in Turkey, Lebanese Health Minister Ali Hassan Khalil said.

“We have received confirmation that they have been freed. They have arrived in Turkey and should return home today,” said Khalil.

On Tuesday, Lebanon’s state news agency NNA said 13 pilgrims were abducted in northern Syria as they made their way home from a pilgrimage in Iran and accused the rebel Free Syrian Army of having kidnapped them.

The FSA denied the claim.

On Thursday 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.

It was not immediately clear in what circumstances the pilgrims were freed.

Their abduction came following deadly clashes in Lebanon between supporters and opponents of the Syrian regime, and fears that the crisis in Syria would spill over into Lebanon.

NNA also reported the release of the pilgrims, saying that Prime Minister Najib Mikati received a call from his Turkish counterpart Ahmet Davutoglu who assured him they were “safe and on their way to Beirut.”

Meanwhile the head of the powerful pro-Syrian Shiite Hezbollah movement, welcomed news of the pilgrims’ release and renewed his support for the regime of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad.

“If this abduction was aimed at putting pressure on our position (of support for Syria),” it failed, said Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah in a speech broadcast on the group’s Al-Manar television.

A private plane owned by former billionaire prime minister Saad Hariri was preparing to fly the pilgrims home, Future News television, owned by former Sunni premier Hariri, reported.

In his speech Nasrallah thanked Hariri for having “made special efforts towards the liberation” of the pilgrims.