Lebanese Shia pilgrims held hostages in Syria 'freed'

Relatives of the nine Lebanese held as hostages by rebels in the northern Syria town of Azaz hold placards during a sit-in to demand their release The hostages' relatives have held protests demanding their release

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Nine Lebanese Shia pilgrims held hostage in Syria have been freed, Lebanon's interior minster has said.

The pilgrims have crossed over into southern Turkey, and will arrive back in Lebanon soon, according to Interior Minister Marwan Charbel.

The nine were part of a group of 11 who were seized while making their way back to Lebanon in May 2012 after a tour of holy sites in Iran.

Two of the group were subsequently released.

The pilgrims' release had been reported by Lebanese officials three days after they were seized, but it then transpired that they had not left Syria.

Jubilation

"The story is over," Mr Charbel told the Reuters news agency. "In the next 24 hours, they will be with us [in Lebanon]."

The Qatari foreign minister told the al-Jazeera television network on Friday that the pilgrims' release had now come about due to Qatari mediation.

The news was greeted with jubilation in southern Beirut, where relatives of some of those kidnapped live, according to local media reports.

In August a group called Zuwwar al-Imam Rida said it was behind the kidnapping of two Turkish pilots in Beirut, saying they would be freed in exchange for the pilgrims.

Mr Charbel said he now expected the two pilots, Murat Akpinar and co-pilot Murat Agca, to be released soon, according to Reuters.

"We insist that those who kidnapped the Turks release them,'" he said,

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu was also quoted as saying he expected a resolution to their case soon.

"Very positive developments are under way in the case of the pilots; this matter has largely been settled," Mr Davutoglu said on Turkish television, according to AFP.

Earlier this week the two appeared in a video broadcast on Lebanese television saying they were both well and wanted to go home.

There are also expectations that a number of female prisoners being held by the Syrian government might be released as part of an elaborate three-way deal.

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