Nine Lebanese Shiites who were abducted by a Syrian rebel group last year returned to Beirut late Saturday night as part of a three-way prisoner swap.
The deal, which took months to achieve, underlines the rampant phenomenon of kidnappings in Syria in which foreigners, both journalists and aid workers, along with an unknown number of Syrians, have been abducted for a variety of reasons. Some victims are simply held for ransom, while others are political hostages held by increasingly radical opposition factions, some of them tied to Al Qaeda.
“The situation was much worse than you can imagine and we have paid a very high price,” said Abbas Sheayb, one of the released pilgrims on arrival at Beirut airport.
The Lebanese hostages were part of a group of 11 that were kidnapped in the northern province of Aleppo in May 2012 while returning from a pilgrimage to Shiite shrines in Iran. The 11 were accused by their captors, the Northern Storm Brigade, of being members of Lebanon’s militant Shiite Hezbollah. The abduction came at a time of growing speculation that Hezbollah militants were fighting in Syria on behalf of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Hezbollah’s military intervention in Syria has since been confirmed by the party’s leadership.
Two of the hostages were released in the following months but the fate of the remaining nine became mired in lengthy negotiations over the rebel group’s demand that the Assad regime release 282 women detainees. The families of the Lebanese hostages blamed Turkey for not exerting sufficient influence with the Northern Storm faction which they claimed had contacts with the Turkish authorities. The families regularly held protests outside the Turkish Embassy in Beirut and in August two Turkish airline pilots were kidnapped as they were leaving Beirut airport. The families of the pilgrims denied any involvement in the abductions and a previously unknown group called Zuwwar al-Imam Ali al-Reza claimed responsibility.
Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, the director general of Lebanon’s General Security department, spent months negotiating with the Turkish authorities on behalf of the Lebanese government. The intervention of Qatar helped hasten an eventual deal.
The Assad regime agreed to release a number of female detainees in exchange for the release of the Lebanese hostages. The Lebanese Al-Liwaa daily newspaper reported Saturday that Qatar had additionally handed the kidnappers $150 million to smooth the deal, but that report could not be confirmed.
As the nine freed Lebanese departed Turkey Saturday night, the two Turkish airline pilots were released and headed home from Beirut airport. Murat Apkinar, one of the two pilots, said that his kidnappers had tied their abduction to their kidnapped family members in Syria.
“First days were a bit constrained. We even went to the toilets under the control of weapons, however, we did not face any violence,” he said.
Ibrahim said he would continue to seek the release of two Greek Orthodox bishops who were abducted in northern Syria in April.
The kidnapping phenomenon has cast a chill on reporters and aid workers seeking to enter Syria in recent months. Just in the past week, two journalists for Sky News Arabic and their Syrian driver along with seven Red Cross workers were abducted in north Syria. Four of the Red Cross workers were subsequently released but the fate of the other three remains unknown.
While rebel groups are blamed for most of the kidnappings, the Syrian regime is believed also to be holding several foreign journalists. Among them are James Foley, a reporter with Global Post who disappeared in northwest Syria in November last year, and Austin Tice, a reporter for McClatchy newspapers, who was last seen near Damascus in August 2012.