A special operations team from Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MİT) launched a covert operation in Syria in the midst of clashes in northern Syria to rescue a group of Lebanese pilgrims held hostage for 17 months who were then swapped for two kidnapped Turkish pilots, a Turkish newspaper reported Monday.
The Syrian rebels, who kidnapped the pilgrims in May 2012, transferred them to the northern Syrian city of Azaz in early October as part of the deal that calls for exchanging them for two Turkish pilots in Lebanon, the Sabah daily reported, quoting high-level officials. The deal called for the simultaneous transfer of pilgrims to Turkey in Eid al-Adha with the release of the pilots. However the pilgrims were caught in clashes between the Northern Storm Brigade, the rebel group that held the pilgrims and the al-Qaeda-linked group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Azaz on Oct.15.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan then decided to send an MIT team to Azaz to rescue the pilgrims out of the clashes.
The nine pilgrims arrived in Beirut on Saturday after being freed in an exchange that also saw the release of two Turkish Airlines pilots who were seized in Lebanon in August.
The Shiite pilgrims were kidnapped as they headed home overland in May 2012 after visiting holy sites in Iran, with rebels charging that they belonged to Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah, which backs the Syrian regime of president Bashar al Assad .
Turkish Airlines Pilot Murat Akpinar and co-pilot Murat Agca were abducted outside the airport in Beirut by a group calling itself Zuwwar Imam al-Rida, which demanded Turkey use its influence with Syrian rebels to secure the release of the nine Shiites.
There was no mention in Sabah daily report about the role of Qatar, while other Turkish sources claimed that Qatar paid $150 ransom to the rebels and used four of its planes to execute the deal.
Jubilant scenes in Lebanon and Turkey greeted the return home of nine Lebanese and two Turkish hostages freed in the swap deal.
Rebels denied receiving Ransom
In another development The Northern Storm brigade said on Monday that Damascus had failed to free dozens of female detainees who were supposed to have been released from regime jails as part of a 3 way swap deal involving the nine Lebanese pilgrims and two Turkish pilots.
The Northern Storm brigade, based in the north of Syria, had expected the female prisoners’ release after they freed the Lebanese pilgrims
“We sent a delegation representing both us and the women (detainees), as well as Syrian Muslim scholars, to welcome the women at the agreed time in Adana airport (in Turkey),” but no one arrived, said the Northern Storm brigade.
On Saturday, Lebanese authorities repeatedly thanked Damascus for agreeing to the rebels’ demand to free about 200 women detainees held in regime jails.
Last Friday caretaker Interior Minister Marwan Charbel had said that General Security chief Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim would hand over a list of about 200 women detainees to Damascus, and that the Syrian authorities were “cooperating very well” on the issue.
Ibrahim himself, who is closely linked to Hezbollah thanked Syrian President Bashar Assad for “facilitating” his mission upon return from Turkey .
Asked about the fate of the women held in Syrian government jails, Ibrahim said: “What we had agreed upon has been fully implemented.”
He did not give further details, but Charbel claimed that although the detainees haven’t yet been released, the Syrian regime would implement the deal.
Tens of thousands of people are being detained by the Syrian regime, many of them without trial, activists say.
Northern Storm also denied receiving any ransom payment in exchange for the Lebanese hostages.
On Saturday, al-Liwaa newspaper quoted a Turkish source as saying that Qatar paid $150 million to the rebels for the release of the Lebanese Shiite pilgrims .
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