BEIRUT (AP) - Nine Shiite pilgrims from Lebanon kidnapped in Syria were freed late Friday night as part of a negotiated hostage release that could see two Turkish pilots held in Lebanon released, officials said.
The pilgrims were part of a group of 11 hostages taken by a rebel faction in northern Syria in May 2012. Two were later released, but the nine had been held since, causing friction in the region and sparking an Aug. 9 kidnapping of two Turkish Airlines pilots in Beirut.
Lebanese Interior Minister Marwan Charbel told The Associated Press that the nine Lebanese hostages "are now in Turkish territories." Charbel said he expects the Turkish pilots to be released in Lebanon soon, and the Syrian government will release a number of female detainees.
"We insist that those who kidnapped the Turks release them," he said, referring to the pilots. The two pilots appeared in a video on Wednesday, the first since they were kidnapped.
"This is all part of one deal," Charbel said by telephone.
Asked when he expects the freed Lebanese to come home, he said "in the coming 24 to 48 hours."
The pilgrims were kidnapped in May 2012 while on their way from Iran to Lebanon through Turkey and Syria. They were kidnapped shortly after they crossed the Turkish border into Syria.
In Beirut's southern suburbs, the families of the nine Lebanese gathered at a travel agency that they went to Iran with, some of them weeping.
Satellite news channel Al-Jazeera quoted Qatar's Foreign Minister Khalid bin Mohamed al-Attiyah as saying the tiny Gulf nation negotiated the release of the nine pilgrims.
The commander of the rebel brigade that kidnapped the pilgrims, Ammar al-Dadikhi, told the AP last September that he was holding them captive to try to force Lebanon's Shiite militant group Hezbollah to stop supporting Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime.
Syria's rebels are predominantly Sunnis, and are widely supported by Lebanon's own Sunni community. Two of the hostages were later released with Turkey's assistance.
Associated Press writers Jon Gambrell in Cairo and Dia Hadid in Beirut contributed to this report.
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