BEIRUT (AP) — Nine Lebanese pilgrims held by Syrian rebels were expected to return Saturday to Beirut as part of a negotiated, ambitious three-way hostage deal, the Lebanese interior minister said.
Their expected release will end a year-and-a-half ordeal for the Shiite men, kidnapped in May 2012 while on their way from Iran to Lebanon, via Turkey and Syria. It also concluded part of a swap that officials say will include the release of two Turkish Airlines pilots held by militants in Lebanon and female prisoners held by Syria's government.
Residents of the mostly Shiite southern suburb of Beirut fired celebratory gunfire into the air, waved the Lebanese national flag and recited poetry in anticipation of seeing their loved ones Saturday.
Interior Minister Marwan Charbel said that the pilgrims should arrive at the international airport in Lebanon's capital, Beirut. As of Saturday evening, the pilgrims' plane still sat at Istanbul's international airport. It was not immediately clear why the plane had not departed.
The minister said despite the delay, the men were expected within hours.
"It's a wedding for us, it's a celebration," Charbel said from the airport.
The pilgrims were held by Syrian rebels who initially demanded that the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah end its involvement in the Syria's civil war, now entering its third year. They later softened their demands to the release of imprisoned women held by security forces loyal to President Bashar Assad.
Assad has drawn support from Syria's ethnic and religious minorities, including Christians and members of his Alawite sect. The rebels are dominated by Syria's Sunni Muslim majority. Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah have played a critical role in recent battlefield victories for forces loyal to Assad. Hard-line Sunni fighters have backed the rebels.
The pilgrims' kidnapping set off a series of tit-for-tat kidnappings by Shiite clansmen inside Lebanon, including the two Turkish pilots, previously identified as Murat Akpinar and Murat Agca, in Beirut in August. The gunmen hoped to pressure Turkey to help release the pilgrims.
Turkey is believed to have close relations to some Syrian rebel groups. All three groups of captives — the Lebanese pilgrims, the Turkish pilots and the imprisoned Syrian women — are meant to be released in coming days as part of the negotiated deal.
Charbel said the Turkish men were expected to be released Saturday.
"Today, God willing, you will see them soon at the airport," he told reporters at the airport.
Hopeful families crowded into Beirut's international airport, waiting for their loved ones.
"I miss you as much as the size of all the sky," said a young girl waiting for her father, speaking to a local Lebanese television station. Her mother stood beside her, sobbing.
Lebanese, Turkish and Syrian officials declined to immediately offer more details of the complicated, multilateral exchange. The deal appeared to be mostly mediated by the resource-rich Gulf state of Qatar, which has supported Syrian rebels in their battle against the Assad government. Palestinian officials also mediated.
It is one of the more ambitious negotiated settlements to come out of Syria's civil war, where the warring sides remain largely opposed to any bartered peace. But it suggested that the parties — and their regional backers — were more prepared to deal with each other than at any other previous time in the conflict.
The Lebanese pilgrims crossed into Turkey late Friday.
Meanwhile Saturday, Syrian rebels assaulted a checkpoint in a pro-government suburb of Damascus on Saturday, setting off a suicide car bomb that killed 16 soldiers, activists said.
Rebels led by the al-Qaida-linked Jabhat al-Nusra or Nusra Front set off the bomb while assaulting a checkpoint near the town of Mleiha. The town lies beside the suburb of Jaramana, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. It reported heavy fighting after the blast.
The state news agency SANA said the suicide blast wounded 15 people, most of them seriously.
At least 100,000 Syrians have been killed in the civil war.