Nine Lebanese pilgrims kidnapped in Syria freed

Nine Lebanese Shiite pilgrims kidnapped by rebels in Syria last year have been released amid signs that two Turkish pilots abducted in Lebanon also may soon be freed, officials said Friday.

"The nine Lebanese held in Syria are on their way to Turkey," Lebanon's Interior Minister Marwan Charbal told AFP.

The country's Prime Minister Najib Mikati added in a statement that the former hostages were "in a secure place and are ready to enter Lebanon".

The release comes after a senior Lebanese security official travelled to Damascus to discuss a prisoner exchange deal to free the group, who were abducted in Syria's northern Aleppo province in May 2012 as their families said they were returning from a pilgrimage to Iran.

At the same time, Turkey said the detention of two Turkish Airlines pilots abducted in Beirut in August was close to ending.

The pilots were kidnapped by a previously unknown group, which said it had seized the pair to secure the release of the nine Lebanese citizens held captive in Syria.

"Very favourable developments are under way concerning the two Turkish pilots, this matter has been largely settled," Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said on local television, adding that the men could be freed "within hours or days".

The relatives of the nine Lebanese pilgrims have denied responsibility for kidnapping the pilots, though they said they were happy to see additional pressure placed on Ankara.

They had accused Turkey of not doing enough to win the release of their loved ones from Syrian rebels.

On August 9, gunmen ambushed a bus carrying a Turkish Airlines crew from Beirut's international airport to a hotel in the city, and snatched the pilot and co-pilot.

A group calling itself Zuwwar Imam al-Rida claimed the abduction, and demanded that Turkey use its influence with Syrian rebels it backs to secure the release of the nine Lebanese Shiites kidnapped in May 2012.

The pilots were seized just outside the airport, in an area controlled by the powerful Shiite Lebanese movement Hezbollah.

Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah has denied any involvement in the kidnapping.