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Syrian rebels free nine Lebanese pilgrims

Nine Lebanese Shiite pilgrims kidnapped by rebels in Syria in May 2012 have been freed. Their release, thought to be part of a hostage deal, could see two Turkish pilots freed from captivity in Lebanon.

The nine Shiite pilgrims were freed late on Friday, Lebanon's interior minister reported, almost 18 months after they were captured in Syria's northern Aleppo province.

The hostages are "now in Turkish territories," Interior Minister Marwan Charbel told news agency AP.

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. Two were later released following Turkish mediation efforts.

According to news agency AFP the release of the nine remaining pilgrims came after a senior Lebanese security official travelled to Damascus to discuss a prisoner exchange deal, prompting speculation that the release of two Turkish pilots currently held in Lebanon was imminent.

"Very favorable developments are under way concerning the two Turkish pilots," Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said in a statement carried by Turkey's state run Anadolu Agency. "This matter has been largely settled."

He added that the men could be freed "within hours or days."

Counter-abduction

The pilot and co-pilot were abducted by a group calling itself Zuwwar Imam al-Rida during an ambush on a bus carrying a Turkish airlines crew from Beirut's international airport to their hotel on August 9. The previously unknown group claimed to have seized the pair in order to push Turkey to use its influence with Syrian rebels to secure the release of the Lebanese pilgrims.

"We announce that captain Murat Akpinar and his co-pilot Murat Agca are our guests until the release of our brothers, who were kidnapped in Aazaz [in Syria] after visiting holy sites," the group said in a statement carried by Lebanese media in August.

"Turkey is directly responsible for the freedom" of the Lebanese hostages, the statement added.

The pilots were seized in an area controlled by the powerful Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah. The group has denied any involvement in the kidnapping.

Hezbollah's involvement in the Syrian conflict is reported to have triggered the abduction of the Shiite pilgrims. The commander of the Syrian rebel group responsible, Ammar al-Dadikhi, told AP in September the kidnapping was aimed at forcing Hezbollah to stop supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The group has played a critical role in propping up the Assad regime during the Syrian conflict, now in its third year.

ccp/tj (AFP, AP)