Lebanon says nine of its citizens kidnapped by rebels in northern Syria nearly 18 months ago have been freed, prompting celebrations among their families.
They were reportedly released as part of a negotiated three-way deal to exchange hostages.
The nine, said by the families to be Shi’ite pilgrims, were abducted on their way home from Iran, soon after they had crossed from Turkey into Syria.
Their release was announced by Lebanon’s caretaker Interior Minister Marwan Charbel – to the delight of relatives who gathered in Beirut’s southern neighbourhood of Bir al-Abed.
“We are very happy, and we thank all the people who helped with this humanitarian move,” said Mona Tormos, whose husband Ali is among those reportedly freed.
After the abduction in May 2012, two pilgrims were later released, with Turkey’s assistance.
Despite denials by the families, the kidnappers accused the hostages of belonging to Hezbollah, the Shi’ite Lebanese party actively supporting the Syrian government.
Qatar has said it intervened to secure their freedom.
The news has raised hopes for the imminent release of two Turkish pilots abducted in Lebanon in August. They were taken by a previously unknown group which said it wanted Ankara to put pressure on those holding the Lebanese hostages.