Lebanese Officials Say Arrival of Freed Pilgrims in Beirut Delayed till Morningإقرأ هذا الخبر بالعربية
Jubilation turned into anxious waiting in Lebanon on Friday after top officials said eleven Lebanese Shiite pilgrims abducted in Syria have been freed and conflicting reports emerged about the exact timing of their arrival in Beirut and about whether or not they were handed over to Turkish authorities.
According to a statement issue by Prime Minister Najib Miqati’s office, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu informed the premier that the pilgrims are doing well and that they were on their way to Beirut.
For his part, Speaker Nabih Berri received a telephone call from former Prime Minister Saad Hariri confirming the development.
Head of Syria's opposition Ahrar Party Ibrahim al-Zohbi also confirmed the release to al-Jadeed television.
He said that they were handed to Turkish authorities, adding that they were released without any conditions.
But around midnight, Interior Minister Marwan Charbel announced that the abductees “have just arrived in Turkey” and that they were not expected to arrive in Beirut before morning.
Hizbullah and AMAL Movement also issued a joint statement confirming that the pilgrims are in good health and asking their families to return home and wait till morning.
Several media reports -- some attributed to Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour, Transport Minister Ghazi Aridi and the Beirut Rafik Hariri International Airport -- had earlier said the freed pilgrims were due to arrive in Beirut around 11 p.m. Friday.
Charbel blamed the delay on “routine logistic reasons,” reassuring that the pilgrims are in good health. The minister did not rule out that the interrogation of the freed pilgrims in Turkey could be the reason behind the delay.
Meanwhile, Ahmed Ramadan, member of the opposition Syrian National Council, told MTV that “the Lebanese abductees are still in Syria.”
“The fierce Syrian shelling on border areas is hindering the handing over of the abductees to Turkey,” MTV also reported.
The pilgrims’ relatives and hundreds of supporters had flocked to the Beirut airport since the afternoon hours to welcome the freed men.
Top Lebanese officials had also arrived at the airport to welcome the pilgrims, including Deputy PM Samir Moqbel, the representative of President Michel Suleiman and PM Miqati, Speaker Nabih Berri’s representative MP Hani Qobeissi, Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour, Interior Minister Marwan Charbel, several lawmakers and Hizbullah chief Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah’s representative MP Ali Ammar.
Thousands of people took to the streets and celebratory gunshots were fired in Beirut's southern suburbs at the news of the release.
The pilgrims will be transported from Turkey to Lebanon on board ex-PM Hariri's private jet, state-run National News Agency reported.
NNA said Hariri's plane arrived at Turkey's Adana Airport at around 7:15 p.m. and that routine procedures had started ahead of the plane's takeoff.
On Tuesday, Lebanon's state news agency NNA said the pilgrims were abducted in northern Syria as they made their way home from a pilgrimage in Iran and accused the rebel Free Syrian Army of having kidnapped them.
The FSA denied the claim.
On Thursday the rebel army said it was making "every effort" to locate and release the pilgrims.