By Diaa Hadid and Bassem Mroue, AP
BEIRUT — Nine Lebanese pilgrims abducted in Syria and two Turkish pilots held hostage in Lebanon returned home Saturday night, part of an ambitious three-way deal cutting across the Syrian civil war.
Thousands of well-wishers greeted the Shiite pilgrims in Beirut, with one man being carried out of the airport on the shoulders of a crowd. Meanwhile, a plane carrying the two freed Turkish Airlines pilots landed in Istanbul, where Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other officials greeted them.
Their planes departed just minutes apart, crisscrossing in the skies as part of the carefully-calibrated plan. The hostage release ends an ordeal that began a year and a half ago when Syrian rebels kidnapped the pilgrims, triggering tit-for-tat kidnappings that included the two Turkish pilots.
The deal, negotiated by Qatar and Palestinian officials, also was meant to include freeing dozens of women held in Syrian government jails to satisfy the rebels who abducted the pilgrims.
Sunday, activists said they were still searching for news of imprisoned Syrian women who were meant to be freed as part of an ambitious three-way hostage release deal that was implemented Saturday.
A pro-government Syrian newspaper, al-Watan, said Sunday 128 women were released, citing “media sources.”
But Syrian activists contacted throughout the country said they had not been able to confirm if any women were freed.
Syrian officials would not comment, and official state media did not mention the issue.
The nine Shiite pilgrims were kidnapped in May 2012 while on their way from Iran to Lebanon via Turkey and Syria. Turkish Airlines pilots Murat Akpinar and Murat Agca had been held since their kidnapping in August in Beirut.
“For the first 15 days, we were kept in a room and didn’t see the light of day,” Akpinar said in a hastily organized news conference after landing in Istanbul. He said he and his colleague were guarded by dozens of gunmen. “It was impossible for us to escape,” he said.
In Beirut’s international airport, hundreds of relatives shouted and screamed as the pilgrims filed in. Most of the freed men wore tidy plaid shirts, their faces visibly tired.