The nine Lebanese Shia pilgrims who were kidnapped by rebels in northern Syria over a year and a half ago arrived safely to Lebanon late-Saturday, television reports showed.
Relatives of the abductees broke into tears on the tarmac of Beirut’s international airport as they embraced the nine men.
The pilgrims were among 11 abducted in May 2012 by the western-backed Northern Storm Brigade as they were returning home in a bus from Shia sites in Iran. Two were later released.
Hundreds of friends and family of the men crowded the airport where celebrations began in their highly anticipated return.
Their arrival also saw the release of two Turkish pilots who were kidnapped near Beirut’s airport in August. Lebanon’s National News Agency said they departed from the airport back to Turkey around 9:00 pm.
“There is just God and Lebanon,” one of the nine Lebanese pilgrims told reporters on the tarmac, denouncing the politicization and sectarian elements surrounding their abduction. “Anyone who says anything different should be knocked to the ground.”
Residents of Beirut’s southern suburbs, where the kidnapped men live, hung banners with the images of Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and General Security chief Abbas Ibrahim, who helped negotiate their release, between flags of Hezbollah and Amal.
Another one of the released men said they had no idea they were about to be freed before they arrived in Turkey on Friday. Before that, he said they had been held in a small room where they slept against walls in the northern town of Azaz, about five kilometers from the Turkish border.
He denied rumors that they had been kept in Turkey.
“About seven or eight days ago we were brought to a new house about a kilometer from Turkey. Then [yesterday] they took us out. We didn’t know where we were going, we thought they were moving us to a different hideout,” he said, before pausing to flirt with one of the female reporters.
“We didn’t think we were going to Turkey,” he continued. “Then we were handed over to a Qatari man and a Turkish man. When I heard people speaking Turkish I knew we arrived to Turkey.”