A freed Lebanese member of a group of 11 Shiite pilgrims taken hostage by Syrian rebels three months ago flew back home to Beirut via Turkey on Saturday.
“All the other pilgrims are safe and sound. We have been very well treated, as if we were at home,” Hussein Ali Omar told reporters at Beirut airport, thanking all those involved in securing his release, including Turkey.
Omar, who was kidnapped with his fellow Shiite pilgrims on May 22 while on their way home from Iran, had earlier appeared in footage aired by Al-Jazeera television crossing the border into Turkey.
The Turkish foreign ministry welcomed Omar’s release and voiced hopes that the remaining pilgrims “will be released as soon as possible.”
“It is clear that such actions as hostage-taking will benefit nobody in the region which has been passing through a delicate time,” the ministry said in a statement.
“Putting an end to such actions without harming anyone is quite important for regional stability.”
Unverified Lebanese media reports had said some of the pilgrims were killed in an air strike on the northern Syrian town of Aazaz earlier this month, triggering a spate of violence against Syrians in Lebanon.
The group’s captors said in a statement that Omar was released as a “goodwill gesture” in response to a request by a group of Lebanese Muslim clerics, as well as a request by an unnamed aide to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
But the speaker said the release does not mean the group had abandoned a demand for Lebanon’s Shiite militant group Hezbollah to “determine its position regarding the Syrian people and the Syrian revolution.”
Iran- and Syria-backed Hezbollah is a staunch ally of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
A Lebanese member of a prominent Shiite clan has also been seized by a rebel group in Syria, prompting retaliatory kidnappings in Lebanon of Syrian nationals and a Turk.
The Muqdad clan on Saturday announced the release of six of the Syrians as a sign of “good faith towards the Syrian people and the (rebel) Free Syrian Army.”
“This has nothing to do with the release of one of the 11 hostages in Syria, clan spokesman Maher Muqdad told AFP, adding that four other Syrians and the Turkish national were still being held.
Ankara says two Turks have been kidnapped in Lebanon and has told its nationals to to avoid non-essential travel to the country that has been battling to contain an eruption of violence triggered by events in neighbouring Syria.
Several oil-rich Gulf countries have also ordered their nationals to leave the country in the face of threats, particularly against Saudis and Qataris whose governments are staunch opponents of the Syrian regime.
Turkey is home to thousands of refugees in its camps along the Syrian border and also provides sanctuary for rebel forces made up of army defectors.