Lebanese President Suleiman thanks Gul for pilgrims' release

Lebanese President Suleiman thanks Gul for pilgrims' release

Lebanese President Michel Suleiman has called Turkish President Abdullah Gul to thank Turkey for its efforts in saving nine Lebanese pilgrims who were being held hostage by the Syrian opposition and getting them home safely Today`s Zaman reported.

Two Turkish pilots kidnapped by militants in Lebanon were freed Saturday as part of a three-way deal that saw nine Lebanese pilgrims abducted in Syria released from captivity. The Turks' release is part of a negotiated hostage deal that included the freeing of the kidnapped pilgrims, as well as dozens of women held in Syrian government jails. The nine Lebanese Shiite pilgrims who were kidnapped by rebels in northern Syria over a year-and-a-half ago arrived in Lebanon safely late Saturday with the efforts of Turkish and Qatari officials.

According to reports circulating in the Turkish media, President Gul's office said that the Lebanese president expressed sorrow for the long abduction of the Turkish pilots and underlined the friendship between Turkey and Lebanon over the phone. Gul told his counterpart that he is satisfied with the Turkish pilots' arrival in Turkey and Lebanese pilgrims' arrival in Lebanon and thanked Suleiman and Lebanese officials for their cooperation over the release of the pilots.

Gul also said that Turkey places great importance on its relations with Lebanon and stressed that Turkey supports the Lebanese nation's security and welfare.

After Saturday's release of the two Turkish Airlines (THY) pilots, who were abducted by gunmen in Beirut in early August, new details have emerged regarding the rescue operations of the Turkish pilots and Lebanese pilgrims. In early August, while the pilots' crew was being driven to their hotel from the Beirut airport, a group called Zuwwar Imam Ali al-Reda kidnapped pilot Murat Akpınar and his co-pilot Murat Ağca. The group demanded that Turkey, in exchange for the pilots' release, increase pressure on the Syrian opposition to release nine Lebanese Shiites who were kidnapped by Syrian opposition fighters in the war-torn country in May of last year.

After arriving safely in Lebanon, the kidnapped Lebanese pilgrims made a statement on Lebanese TV. After denying that they had been kept in Turkey, one of the pilgrims told reporters how they were saved. According to the pilgrim, about 10 days ago they were brought to a town very close to the Turkish border with Syria and then, on Friday, they were taken out of the Syrian town where they were being kept.

The Lebanese pilgrims told the reporters that they did not have any information on where they were being sent on Friday and that they thought they were being moved to a different hideout, not Turkey. "Then we were handed over to a Qatari man and a Turkish man. When I heard people speaking Turkish, I knew we had arrived in Turkey," the pilgrim said, detailing their rescue from Syrian opposition fighters.

Contrary to the statements of the Lebanese pilgrims, Turkey's Sabah daily, known for its closeness to the National Intelligence Organization (MİT), reported that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had given his permission for MİT to launch a risky operation to save the nine Lebanese pilgrims, who could be caught in a crossfire between Syrian fighters and al-Qaeda members.

According to Sabah's report, when the situation of the Lebanese pilgrims grew more risky, MİT members asked for Erdoğan's permission to save the nine pilgrims from clashes between opposition fighters and al-Qaeda members in Syria. The report cites high-level officials and says when the intensity of clashes between the al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the group that kidnapped the Lebanese Shiites increased, MİT officials decided to carry out an operation to ensure the safety of the pilgrims and eliminate any risk of them being captured by ISIS.

Sabah reported that after Erdoğan approved the rescue mission, a MİT ops team went to Turkey's border with Syria on Oct. 16, entered the Syrian town of Azaz -- only 10 kilometers from the Öncupınar border gate in the Turkish province of Kilis -- and saved the nine Lebanese pilgrims amid increasing clashes.

Qatari role in release of Turkish pilots under question

With the uncovering of information after the release of the Turkish pilots, the role of Qatari officials in the swap has also came to the forefront. After being held in captivity for 71 days, Akpınar and Ağca were flown on a Qatari plane to İstanbul. Some news reports noted that Turkey is content with the Qatari mediator role as it does not wish to make contact itself with the opposition groups in Syria amid allegations that Turkey is giving support to these groups, including radical ones.

Aytun Çıray, a deputy from the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), queried the Qatari role in the swap and sent a parliamentary question to Prime Minister Erdoğan asking whether the $150 million that were allegedly paid to save the pilots were paid from the discretionary fund or by Qatar.

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