Lebanese pilgrims held for year by Syrian rebels back in Beirut

In a complex swap of money and hostages organized by Qatar, nine Lebanese Shiite religious pilgrims returned to Beirut Saturday after being held for more than a year by Syrian rebels outside Aleppo.

Qatari Foreign Minister Khaled Atiyya personally negotiated the deal with Syrian rebels groups in the Syrian city of Azaz along the border with Turkey. The deal included the release of two Turkish pilots who’d been abducted in Beirut two months ago – apparently by the families of the pilgrims. Both pilots, who’d appeared in a short video broadcast on Lebanese news earlier this week, were flown to Turkey in anticipation of the arrival of the Lebanese hostages, who passed into the custody of Turkish intelligence on Friday night to prepare for the return flight home.

The rebels abducted the nine men last April, claiming that they were spies for the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah, which has increasingly and openly been supporting their ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad. Although some of the men do appear to have ties to the secretive militant group, Hezbollah denied they were on a military operation but were returning by land from a tour of Shiite religious sites in Iraq.

Local media reports claimed that Qatar had paid as much as $150 million to secure the release of the hostages – such a deal traditionally might include compensation to both the Lebanese and Turkish hostages as well as payments to the kidnappers. McClatchy could not confirm that number.

“Qatar and [Lebanese] Gen Ibrahim Abbas negotiated the deal with the kidnappers in Turkey and here in Beirut,” a Lebanese security official familiar with the deal told McClatchy. He asked to remain anonymous because he was not authorized to discuss the details of the release. “Last night the Turkish [military intelligence] took control of the men,” he said, referring to the kidnapped pilgrims.

When asked about the ransom report, the official said that the deal did include money paid by Qatar but said that the $150 million figure seemed high.

With the Syrian civil war well into its third year, abductions have become frequent, with scores of Western journalists and aid workers joining thousands of Syrians on both sides who’ve been taken captive.

In the last year, ransom demands have become a more common element to the kidnappings, with both sides demanding cash payments for the release of both Syrian and foreign hostages.

The announcement that the nine men would be returning Saturday night was marked by celebratory gunfire in predominately Shiite Muslim neighborhoods throughout Beirut as Syria’s tiny neighbor slightly exhaled in relief at the news. The situation ratcheted up sectarian tensions in this already fractured nation as the families of the men held repeatedly held protests targeting Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia – all predominately Sunni Muslim states that support the rebels.

Some family members also had threatened to exact revenge on Sunnis in Lebanon, a community that widely supports the rebellion next door, if the men were harmed. Last summer saw a wave of kidnappings of Syrian guest workers and visitors from the Persian Gulf states by gunmen linked to the families of both the pilgrims and other Lebanese Shiites thought to be held by rebels in Syria.

The close ties between the Lebanese Shiites and Hezbollah – most large Shiite families have members who’ve joined the group – led to suspicions that the group’s powerful security apparatus was assisting the families in the revenge kidnappings, a charge the group repeatedly denied despite wide spread skepticism in Lebanon.