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Lebanese nationals return home after Turkish hostage swap

By Mohammed Jamjoom and Tom Watkins, CNN
October 20, 2013 -- Updated 0351 GMT (1151 HKT)
One of nine Lebanese Shiite pilgrims abducted in Syria is greeted upon arrival in Bir al-Abed, Beirut, October 19, 2013
One of nine Lebanese Shiite pilgrims abducted in Syria is greeted upon arrival in Bir al-Abed, Beirut, October 19, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Freed Turkish pilot says he knew his government "wouldn't leave us"
  • Two Turkish pilots were taken hostage in Lebanon two months ago
  • Nine Lebanese were abducted in Syria in May 2012
  • Both sets of hostages return home

Beirut, Lebanon (CNN) -- Nine Lebanese nationals abducted 17 months ago in Syria returned home Saturday after a multinational deal to secure their release, officials said.

They arrived at Beirut-Rafic Hariri International Airport on a flight from Turkey, where they were sent after being freed Friday, according to Lebanon's state-run National News Agency.

Lebanese Foreign Affairs Minister Adnan Mansour and Interior Minister Marwan Charbel, together with relatives of the freed hostages, were at the airport to welcome them, the news agency reported.

Their return follows the release of two Turkish Airlines pilots who were abducted in Beirut two months ago, the agency said. The pilots arrived Saturday in Istanbul, where Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan greeted them, Turkey's semiofficial Anadolu Agency reported.

Turkish Airline pilot Murat Akpinar, who was kidnapped in Beirut, reunites with his family, October 19, 2013.
Turkish Airline pilot Murat Akpinar, who was kidnapped in Beirut, reunites with his family, October 19, 2013.

Turkish President Abdullah Gul spoke to the pilots by phone, Anadolu said.

One of the pilots, Murat Akpinar, said he understood why there was no military raid to rescue them since that could have led to hundreds of deaths, Anadolu said. Still, he said he never lost faith.

"We knew that our government was behind us, and they would not leave us there," Akpinar said, according to Anadolu.

The nine Lebanese were kidnapped in May 2012 in Aleppo, Syria, as they were returning from a religious pilgrimage to Iran, their relatives said. Some in Syria accused them of being members of Hezbollah, a Shiite militant group.

The pilots were going from the Beirut airport to a hotel when their bus was ambushed August 9. They may have been targeted in retaliation for the Lebanese abductions because many Lebanese Shiites oppose the Turkish government's support for rebels in Syria.

Palestinian officials as well as the governments of Qatar and Turkey played a role in securing the swap, Lebanese officials said.

Free passage for many inside Syria remains out of reach. On Saturday, the U.N. humanitarian chief called for a cease-fire in Moadamiyeh so that aid workers could evacuate thousands of civilians trapped in the conflict, which reportedly has killed more than 100,000 people since it began in March 2011.

"The humanitarian community has stressed time and time again that people must not be denied lifesaving help and that the fighting has to stop," Valerie Amos, under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, said in statement.

Aid groups have been barred from Moadamiyeh for months, she said.

"I call on all parties to agree (to) an immediate pause in hostilities in Moadamiyeh to allow humanitarian agencies unhindered access to evacuate the remaining civilians and deliver lifesaving treatment and supplies in areas where fighting and shelling is ongoing," said Amos, who is also the U.N. emergency relief coordinator.

Thousands of families also are trapped elsewhere in Syria, including in Nubil, Zahra, old Aleppo town, old Homs town and Hassakeh, she said.

CNN's Mohammed Jamjoom reported from Beirut, and Tom Watkins wrote in Atlanta. CNN's Neda Farshbaf also contributed to this report.

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