Syria rebels release Lebanese hostages

Lebanese hostages kidnapped in Syria have been set free

Syrian flag. Picture: AFP

BEURIT - Lebanese hostages kidnapped in northern Syria were set free on Friday and were on their way to Beirut, Lebanon's prime minister and an Islamist cleric who brokered their release said.

The Lebanese Shi'ite men were among a group of pilgrims returning to Lebanon from Iran on Tuesday when gunmen stopped their bus after it crossed into Syria from Turkey. The kidnapping had triggered protests in Shi'ite areas of Beirut and raised fears it could ignite sectarian conflict in Lebanon.

Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati received confirmation from Turkey that the hostages had been released, an aide said.

"The prime minister received a call from (Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet) Davutoglu (saying) the Lebanese hostages in Syria are well and are on their way to Beirut," an aide to Mikati told Reuters.

Sheikh Ibrahim al-Zoaby, the cleric who brokered their release, and Lebanese officials said there were 11 hostages in total, after earlier, conflicting accounts of their numbers.

The gunmen who kidnapped the pilgrims had released the women travelling on the bus, some of whom said the kidnappers wanted to swap the hostages for Syrian insurgents in Syrian government custody.

Residents of the southern suburb of Beirut, a Hezbollah stronghold where the freed hostages live, flocked to the streets to celebrate with the men's families. Women ululated and threw rice in celebration as fireworks flared overhead.

The freed hostages will fly to Beirut on a private plane belonging to former Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, said an aide to Hariri, a political foe of Hezbollah which mobilised street protests against a government he led and helped bring it down last year.