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Lebanese and Turkish hostages return home in Syria swap

Two Turkish pilots have landed in Istanbul after two months in captivity in Lebanon. As part of an apparent trade-off, nine Lebanese pilgrims captured by Syrian rebels near the Turkish border have also arrived home.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan greeted two kidnapped Turkish pilots on their return from two months in captivity in Lebanon. Their arrival on a Qatar Executive private jet in Istanbul was broadast live on Turkish television.

Murat Akpinar and Murat Agca were abducted on August 9, with their kidnappers calling on Turkey to use its influence with Syrian rebels to secure the release of nine Lebanese pilgrims.

The Lebanese former hostages, captured 18 months ago near Syria's Turkish border, arrived home on Saturday (pictured) - shortly before the Turkish airmen touched down. The almost-synchronized releases were the result of an ambitious three-way deal between Syria, Turkey and Lebanon, with Qatari mediation.

Reciprocal releases

Lebanese television broadcast their return, as friends and family greeted them at Beirut International Airport.

"We thank the state of Qatar for following up the case and mediating, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and Turkey for cooperating with the exerted efforts to secure their safe return," said Nabih Berri, the speaker of Lebanon's parliament.

The pilgrims were part of a group of 11 hostages taken by a rebel faction in May 2012 as they were returning from a pilgrimage to Iran. Rebels later released two of them following Turkish mediation efforts.

The third element of the captive exchange reportedly included a deal to appease the Syrian rebels holding the Lebanese hostages, and was to involve releasing several dozen women held in Syrian jails. According to Syrian politician Sharif Shadadeh, speaking to Lebanese NTV, 128 women were freed on Saturday.

"The Syrian government has released all the women who were included in the deal," he said, without elaborating.

During the course of Syria's civil war, Turkey has consistently sided with rebel forces while Lebanon and Hezbollah in particular is considered an ally of President Bashar al-Assad.

mkg/msh (Reuters, AFP, dpa, AP)