Lebanon said Saturday nine Shiites reportedly freed by Syrian rebels have been transferred to Turkey and will only go home if some 200 prisoners are released from Syrian jails.
The pilgrims were snatched in May 2012 by rebels fighting to oust Syria’s regime, as they were heading home by road following a visit to Shiite holy sites in Iran.
Officials in Lebanon and Turkey said they were released on Friday in a deal that could also see two Turkish pilots who were abducted in Lebanon walk free.
But Lebanese Interior Minister Marwan Charbel said that while the pilgrims were “on Turkish soil,” they had not yet been handed over to a general charged with securing their release.
General Abbas Ibrahim, who heads Lebanon’s Security Agency, had travelled to Damascus Friday to discuss a deal to free the hostages in exchange for the release from Syrian jails of some 200 prisoners, including dozens of women.
“An exchange operation will take place and a large number of Syrian men and women prisoners must come from Syria for this to happen,” Charbel told Al-Manar, the television of Lebanon’s powerful Shiite movement Hezbollah.
The rebels had demanded that the prisoners be transferred to Turkey for the exchange to take place.
The release of Syrian prisoners was a key demand of the rebels after they abducted the Lebanese.
“We are working with the Syrian officials and, inshallah (God willing), the operation will be over soon,” said Charbel.
The minister did not say who was holding the pilgrims or reveal their location in Turkey.
But he stressed that the release of the Lebanese and the Syrians “will take place concurrently.”
Earlier, Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati had said the pilgrims were “in a secure place and are ready to enter Lebanon,” describing their abduction as a “sad” episode for his country.
Qatari Foreign Minister Khaled al-Attiyah told Al-Jazeera television that Doha had mediated the release of the Lebanese.
Mikati said Attiyah was in Turkey and would accompany the pilgrims back to Lebanon.
The reports they had been freed was welcomed by Turkey, which said the detention of two Turkish Airlines pilots kidnapped as they left Beirut airport for a city hotel in August was close to ending.
The pilots were abducted by a previously unknown group, which said it had seized them to secure the release of the nine Lebanese.
“Very favourable developments are under way concerning the two Turkish pilots. This matter has been largely settled,” Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said.
Pilot Murat Akpinar and co-pilot Murat Agca could be freed “within hours or days.”
They had been snatched on August 9 by a group calling itself Zuwwar Imam al-Rida, which demanded Turkey use its influence with Syrian rebels to secure the release of the nine Shiites.
The relatives of the Lebanese pilgrims have repeatedly denied responsibility for kidnapping the pilots but accused Turkey of not doing enough to win the release of their family members.
The pilots were seized just outside the airport, in an area controlled by Hezbollah, which also denied any involvement.