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Lebanese pilgrims abducted in Syria freed, officials say

May 25, 2012 | 10:59 am

Abduction
BEIRUT-- A group of Lebanese Shiite pilgrims abducted in northern Syria earlier this week were freed Friday and arrived in Turkey on their way back to Beirut, according to officials.

Lebanon's Prime Minister Najib Mikati confirmed the hostages had been released. Hezbollah spokesman Ibrahim Moussawi told The Times that the 11 hostages were in "good shape." Some media reports said the group of captives numbered 12, including the group's Syrian bus driver.

The Shiite Muslims were expected to fly home on a plane belonging to Lebanon's Sunni ex-premier Saad Hariri, who heads an anti-Syria opposition group and is at odds with the Shiite-controlled Hezbollah group. Hariri's gesture suggests the incident may result in a rare moment of national unity. The official National News Agency (NNA) reported Hariri's private jet taking off from Beirut on Friday evening for Adanah airport in Turkey.

The group was snatched by gunmen near Syria's second largest city, Aleppo, as they were believed to be returning in buses from a pilgrimage to Iran. Families of the abducted and media reports said the group was kidnapped by Syrian rebels. When the bus crossed into Syria from Turkey it was intercepted and the women were set free.

Previous reports raised the possibility of the pilgrims being kidnapped by insurgents for a potential prisoner swap deal. But officials in the Free Syrian Army, an umbrella group of rebel factions, reportedly denied they were behind the kidnapping. Some even blamed it on the Syrian government. Lebanon's Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour said Wednesday in a statement quoted in media reports that the captives were held by "a splinter group of the armed Syrian opposition."

The ordeal triggered concerns that Syria's conflict could incite Lebanon's sectarian divides. When news broke about the abduction, protesters blocked roads with burning tires and trash cans in Beirut's Shiite-dominated southern suburbs. Roads where soon reopened for traffic after Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah went on TV and appealed for calm and restraint.

Lebanon's political landscape is sharply divided over Syria with most Sunni groups wanting to see Syrian President Bashar Assad overthrown. Hezbollah and some other factions have supported Assad as he attempts to quell a 15-month uprising against his rule. Nasrallah delivered a speech on Friday night highlighting the withdrawal of Israeli troops from southern Lebanon in 2000.

Lebanon has witnessed a spike in security incidents in recent days and Syria-linked clashes have killed at least 10 people in Lebanon just in the past two weeks.

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--Alexandra Sandels

Photo: Relatives of abducted Lebanese Shiite pilgrims kidnapped in northern Syria celebrate their release as they wait for the pilgrims' arrival at Beirut International Airport on Friday. Credit: Joseph Eidjoseph / AFP/ Getty Images

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