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. However, it wasn't immediately clear Saturday night whether any of the women had been freed. The Syrian government and its official SANA news agency did not mention any such release.
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.
Their abductions show how the chaos from the Syrian civil war, now in its third year, has spilled across the greater Middle East. One pilgrim accused his kidnappers of not offering the hostages medical care.
The pilgrims were held by Syrian rebels who initially demanded that the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah end its involvement in the Syria's civil war. They later softened their demands, instead asking for the release of imprisoned women held by security forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Meanwhile, the United Nations' top humanitarian official Saturday urged both sides in the Syrian civil war to allow aid workers access to thousands of civilians trapped in one of several besieged suburbs ringing the capital.
Valerie Amos, the U.N.'s chief for humanitarian and relief issues, called for an immediate pause in hostilities to allow medical and other rescue personnel to enter Muadhamiya, a district southwest of Damascus, the capital, that has been under government siege for months.
Last weekend mostly women and children, were able to leave Muadhamiya in a deal brokered between government and opposition representatives.
But the U.N. official said Saturday that "the same number or more remain trapped" in the district, which has been the frequent target of shelling and clashes.world
Los Angeles Times contributed. First Published October 19, 2013 8:00 PM