Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati has received confirmation from Turkey that Lebanese hostages who had been kidnapped in Syria have been released and sent to Beirut, his office said on Friday.
“The prime minister received a call from [Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet] Davutoğlu [saying] the Lebanese hostages in Syria are well and are on their way to Beirut,” an aide to Mikati said. A cleric who brokered their release was quoted as saying earlier in the day that Syrian opposition groups released the Lebanese hostages and handed them over to Turkish authorities. “With thanks to God, their transfer is complete. They have been handed over to the Turkish authorities,” the cleric, identified as Free People of Syria head Sheikh Ibrahim al-Zoaby, said in a statement, Reuters reported. It was not immediately clear where the hostages were handed to the Turkish authorities or which authorities were involved.
Earlier in the day, Zoaby said efforts were being made by several actors in Lebanon, Europe and some Arab countries to secure the release of the Lebanese hostages.
The hostages were among a group of pilgrims returning to Lebanon from Iran when they were stopped by gunmen after their bus crossed into Syria from Turkey on Tuesday. The gunmen sent women home but kept the men. The kidnapping has triggered protests in Shiite areas of Beirut, raising fears of a resurgence of sectarian tensions across Lebanon.
Some of the passengers on the bus who were sent home said the gunmen were from the Free Syrian Army, a coalition of armed opposition fighters led by army defectors, but the group denied any connection to the abduction. The Free Syrian Army is believed to have little influence over a number of smaller insurgent groups that together make up the coalition.
Turkey denies releasing Iranian trucks loaded with ammo to save journalists
The news of the release of the Lebanese hostages came in the wake of fresh revelations in another hostage case in Syria. Speaking in Ankara at a press conference earlier on Friday, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu denied claims that Turkey has returned Iranian trucks carrying ballistic missile parts in a deal with Tehran to secure the release of two journalists held in Syria.
The two journalists, Adem Özköse and Hamit Coşkun, went missing in Syria in early March after sneaking into Idlib, an opposition hotbed. Özköse, a reporter with the small Islamic-leaning Milat newspaper, and Coşkun, a freelance cameraman, were released earlier this month. Turkey announced that their release was secured with Iran’s mediation.
Only days before the journalists were released, the Turkish Taraf daily claimed that four trucks carrying ballistic missile parts and seized by Turkish authorities on the border were returned to Iran, with their cargo remaining intact. Taraf, citing anonymous officials, said the release of the Iranian trucks was part of a deal aimed at saving the two journalists.