Lebanese citizens kidnapped in Syria were freed and handed over to Turkish authorities on Friday, Lebanon’s prime minister said after the abductions sparked angry protests in his country where sectarian tensions have flared over Syria's turmoil.
The kidnapping of the Lebanese, who were snatched in northern Syria this week as they returned from a pilgrimage in Iran, was the latest incident in the 14-month-old uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to entangle neighboring Lebanon.
The kidnappings followed the worst unrest in years in the Lebanese capital, where rival Sunni factions loyal and opposed to Syria fought street battles after the killing of a Sunni Muslim cleric opposed to Assad in northern Lebanon.
Fighting erupted in that region two weeks ago between Sunni Islamist gunmen, the Lebanese army and Lebanese members of the Alawite sect to which Syria’s rulers belong over the arrest a Lebanese Islamist suspected of funneling arms to the Sunni Muslim insurgents fighting against Assad.
“Thanks to God their transfer is complete ... they have been handed to the Turkish authorities,” said a statement from Sheikh Ibrahim al-Zoaby, a Muslim cleric who had mediated for the release of the hostages, Reuters reported.
Prime Minister Najib Mikati said Turkey confirmed the hostages were free, and would be in Beirut shortly.
The leader of Lebanon’s powerful Shiite armed group Hezbollah, which has stood by the Syrian regime, welcomed the pilgrims’ release. Speaking by satellite link, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah said the group’s support for Syria is firm.
“If you aim to put pressure on our political stance, this will not make any difference,” he said of the kidnappings, according to The Associated Press.
The abductions came at a time of deep tension in Lebanon over Syria. The countries share a web of political and sectarian ties and rivalries, which can quickly turn violent. Clashes linked to the Syria conflict have killed at least 10 people in Lebanon the past two weeks.
Nasrallah’s comments appeared to be an attempt to de-escalate the recent tensions.
“I also thank all the people who controlled their emotions and responded to our call for calm, wisdom and patience,” Nasrallah said, referring to a speech he gave earlier this week calling on his supporters not to take to the streets in anger.
Residents of Beirut’s southern suburbs -- a stronghold of Hezbollah, the Syrian and Iranian-allied guerrilla group and political movement -- poured into the streets to celebrate news of their release, women ululating and tossing rice in the air.
Those same areas saw enraged Shi'ites burn tires and block the road to Beirut’s airport as word of the kidnappings spread.
The kidnappings underscored the potential of Syria’s conflict to drag in the smaller neighbor it has traditionally dominated, as well as the relentlessness of violence that now characterizes what began as peaceful mass protest against Assad.
The United Nations, which six weeks ago put forth a plan for a ceasefire aimed at paving the way for a political end to Syria’s bloodshed, said on Thursday that both sides in the Syrian conflict had committed serious human rights abuses.
In a report documenting 207 killings since March, U.N. investigators said government forces had executed entire families in their homes and rebels tortured and killed captive soldiers and government supporters.
The global body said it can no longer track casualties in the uprising, after estimating at least 9,000 people have been killed. Syria says “terrorists” have killed about 2,600 security and military personnel.
The envoy overseeing the U.N. peace plan, Kofi Annan, is due in Syria shortly, Annan’s spokesman said. It would be his first visit since presenting the plan, which includes teams monitoring the ceasefire, which has yet to take hold.