BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian rebels on Saturday freed one of 11 Lebanese Shiite pilgrims they have been holding for three months, in a move aimed at easing cross-border tensions after a wave of abductions of Syrian citizens in Lebanon.
Hussein Ali Omar, 60, appeared healthy in an interview aired on Qatar's Al-Jazeera TV as he crossed into Turkey after his release, urging the Lebanese and Arabs to support the Syrian people in the midst of their country's escalating civil war.
Omar later arrived in Beirut, the Lebanese capital, aboard a private Turkish jet.
"Our treatment (by the Syrian captors) was excellent and the Lebanese (hostages) are well," said Omar, wearing a white shirt and a red tie bearing an image of the Turkish flag. "I am wearing it in recognition of Turkey's efforts to free me," he said of the tie.
Turkey's Foreign Ministry said Ankara would continue to try to win the freedom of the rest of the hostages.
"It is clear that at this extremely sensitive time for the region, kidnappings benefit no one," the ministry said in a statement. "It is important for regional stability that such actions come to an end before anyone is harmed."
The release came a week after Lebanese tribesmen kidnapped two Turks and more than 20 Syrians to force the rebels to release Lebanese citizen Hassane al-Mikdad, who the rebels captured near the Syrian capital of Damascus and accused of being a member of Lebanon's militant Hezbollah group. The al-Mikdad clan, which later released most of the Syrians it was holding except for four, is a powerful Shiite Muslim family in Lebanon.
The Shiite pilgrims were abducted May 22 after crossing into Syria from Turkey on their way to Lebanon. A previously unknown group calling itself "Syrian Rebels in Aleppo" claimed responsibility.
The group demanded that the leader of the powerful Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, apologize for his comments in support of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Nasrallah, an ally of Assad's regime, has said the abduction would not change Hezbollah's stance.
Mohammed Nour, a rebel spokesman in the Syrian northern town of Azaz, said in a statement read on TV that the release was in response to a request by Lebanon's Association of Muslim Scholars and an adviser to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Nour did not say what they will do with the remaining 10 pilgrims but repeated his call for Hezbollah to "specify their stance regarding the Syrian people and revolution."
Syria's 18-month crisis has spilled over into neighboring Lebanon, where pro- and anti-Syrian group have clashed since Monday in the northern city of Tripoli. The latest violence in Tripoli killed at least 17 and wounded more than a 100 wounded.
In Syria, activists reported clashes between rebels and government troops and well as shelling in different areas including the northern province of Aleppo, the district of Idlib, the eastern region of Deir el-Zour and Daraa in the south. The activists also reported violence in some suburbs of the capital, Damascus, including Daraya, which government troops stormed on Thursday.
The state-run SANA news agency reported heavy clashes in Aleppo, Syria's largest city and commercial capital, saying that "many terrorists" were killed or wounded. The Syrian regime frequently refers to those who oppose it as "terrorists."
Aleppo has been the scene of heavy fighting for nearly a month since rebels launched an assault on the city, seizing control of several neighborhoods. The regime has waged a fierce offensive in a bid to regain control of the city, but so far has struggled to snuff out the rebel offensive.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said clashes in the eastern town of al-Bukamal, which borders Iraq, were concentrated near an air defense base. Al-Bukamal is in the oil-rich province of Deir el-Zour.
The Observatory said 109 people were killed in Daraya alone over the past four days as a result of clashes and violence.
The Local Coordination Committees, another activist group, said army helicopter gunships attacked the town of Qusair in the central province of Homs.
Activists say that more than 20,000 people have been killed since the country's crisis began in March last year.
Earlier Saturday, the head of a team of United Nations observers tasked to monitor a cease-fire in Syria that failed left Damascus. Lt. Gen. Babacar Gaye gave no statement before leaving for Lebanon.
The mission ended last Sunday but Gaye stayed for meetings. The U.N. Security Council has agreed to back a small new liaison office to support future peace efforts.
The observers' deployment in April was one of the only concrete achievements in Special Envoy Kofi Annan's attempts to halt the country's escalating civil war. They had intended to supervise a truce that never took hold.
Annan abandoned the job earlier this month and was replaced by veteran Algerian diplomat and former U.N. envoy to Afghanistan and Iraq Lakhdar Brahimi.
Brahimi hinted Friday at the immense challenges he faces trying to negotiate an end to the war, saying the mission left him "flattered, humbled and scared."
Associated Press reporter Suzan Fraser contributed to this report from Ankara, Turkey.