Nine Lebanese pilgrims abducted in Syria and two Turkish pilots held hostage in Lebanon returned home on Saturday night, part of an ambitious three-way deal cutting across the Syrian civil war.
Thousands of well-wishers greeted the Shiite pilgrims in Beirut, with one man being carried out of the airport on the shoulders of a crowd. Meanwhile, a plane carrying the two freed Turkish Airlines pilots landed in Istanbul, where Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other officials greeted them.
Their planes departed just minutes apart, crisscrossing in the skies as part of the carefully calibrated plan. The hostage release ends an ordeal that began a year and a half ago when Syrian rebels kidnapped the pilgrims, triggering tit-for-tat kidnappings that included the two Turkish pilots.
The deal, negotiated by Qatari and Palestinian officials, also was meant to include freeing dozens of women held in Syrian government jails to satisfy the rebels who abducted the pilgrims.
However, it was not immediately clear on Saturday night whether any of the women had been freed. The Syrian government and its official SANA news agency did not mention any such release.
The nine Shiite pilgrims were kidnapped in May last year while on their way from Iran to Lebanon via Turkey and Syria.
Turkish Airlines pilots Murat Akpinar and Murat Agca had been held since their kidnapping in August in Beirut.
Their abductions show how the chaos from the Syrian civil war, now in its third year, has spilled across the greater Middle East. The men also described facing similar despair and hardships while in captivity.
“For the first 15 days, we were kept in a room and did not see the light of day,” Akpinar said in a hastily organized news conference after landing in Istanbul.
He said he and his colleague were guarded by dozens of gunmen.
“It was impossible for us to escape,” he said.
In Beirut’s international airport, hundreds of relatives shouted and screamed as the pilgrims filed in. Most of the freed men wore tidy plaid shirts, their faces visibly tired.
Dozens of green-clad Lebanese soldiers tried to keep order as crowds heaved forward.
One pilgrim accused his kidnappers of not offering the hostages medical care.
“We wished that any of them had any kind of values,” said the pilgrim, who did not give his name in the chaos.
“We were with people who couldn’t tell a female camel from a male camel,” he said, referring to an Arabic proverb to describe an ignorant person.
Other pilgrims said they were kept in dark, humid rooms for most of their confinement. They could hear heavy fighting nearby.
Lebanese government officials and clerics greeted the men, kissing their cheeks one by one. A top Lebanese official who coordinated the pilgrims’ release entered the airport to the backdrop of whooping cheers and loud music.
“It was difficult, without a doubt,” said Major General Abbas Ibrahim, head of Lebanon’s general security apparatus.
“I didn’t want anything from this deal, except to see this sight,” he said, gesturing at the waiting crowds.
The Lebanese pilgrims gained their freedom first, crossing into Turkey late on Friday. The Turkish pilots were released on Saturday.
The pilgrims were held by Syrian rebels who initially demanded that the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah end its involvement in the Syria’s civil war. They later softened their demands, instead asking for the release of imprisoned women held by security forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The kidnapping of the Shiite Lebanese pilgrims unleashed a wave of kidnappings by Shiite clansmen inside Lebanon, including the two Turkish pilots. The gunmen hoped to pressure Turkey to help release the pilgrims.
The deal appeared to be mostly mediated by the resource-rich Gulf state of Qatar, which has supported Syrian rebels in their battle against al-Assad.