One of 11 Lebanese Shiite pilgrims taken hostage by Syrian rebels in May has been released and is now in Turkey, a Turkish foreign ministry spokesman told AFP Saturday.
Hussein Ali Omar “has arrived in Turkey and we are doing our best for his return to Lebanon,” said the spokesman, who requested anonymity.
The spokesman added that Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu had informed Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati and parliament speaker Nabih Berri of the development.
Following the phone call, Mikati voiced hope that the remaining pilgrims would be freed, Lebanon’s National News Agency said.
The Turkish foreign ministry welcomed the release of the kidnapped Lebanese citizen and hoped that the remaining pilgrims “will be released as soon as possible.”
“It is clear that such actions as hostage-taking will benefit nobody in the region which has been passing through a delicate time,” the ministry said in a statement. “Putting an end to such actions without harming anyone is quite important for regional stability.”
Omar first appeared in a video aired by Al-Jazeera television on Saturday, crossing the border into Turkey and then praising his captors on the Doha-based channel, insisting that he and the others were “guests, not captives.”
“We call on the Lebanese people and the dormant Arab peoples to stand up and support this oppressed people of Syria,” he said in the footage.
The captors said in a statement that Omar was released as a “goodwill gesture” in response to a request by a group of Lebanese Muslim clerics, as well as a request by an unnamed aide to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
But the speaker said the release does not mean the captors have abandoned an earlier demand for Lebanon’s Shiite militant group to “determine its position regarding the Syrian people and the Syrian revolution.”
Iran and Syria-backed Hezbollah are staunch allies of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
The statement said the fate of the remaining captives would be determined “after sending letters to countries neighbouring Syria, as well as all Arab and Muslim states, to inform them of the truth about the Syrian revolution.”
The pilgrims were kidnapped in Syria on May 22 while on their way home from Iran.
Unverified Lebanese media reports that some of the pilgrims had been killed in an air strike on the northern Syrian town of Aazaz earlier this month triggered a spate of violence against Syrians in Lebanon.
The release followed mass kidnappings this month in Lebanon including two Turkish nationals, prompting the Ankara government to advise its nationals to avoid non-essential travel to the country that has been battling to contain an eruption of violence triggered by events in neighbouring Syria.
Several oil-rich Gulf countries have ordered their nationals to leave the country immediately in the face of threats, particularly against Saudis and Qataris whose governments are staunch opponents of the Syrian regime.
Turkey is home to thousands of refugees in its camps along the Syrian border and also provides sanctuary for rebel forces made up of army defectors in a separate camp where security is tighter.
Turkish officials denied any linkage between the kidnapping of Lebanese citizens in Syria and the abduction of the two Turks in Lebanon.