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Freed Lebanese, Turkish hostages to fly home after deal

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Two kidnapped Turkish pilots were freed in Lebanon on Saturday as part of a deal that saw nine Lebanese hostages released in Syria a day earlier, security sources said.

The Lebanese, seized by Syrian rebels in May 2012, were freed after Qatari mediation and were waiting to fly home from Turkey later on Saturday.

Security sources said the deal was that the Lebanese hostages could not leave Turkey until the Turkish ambassador in Beirut had seen the Turkish pilots.

The Lebanese hostages' families say they were religious pilgrims, but their kidnappers accused them of belonging to the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, which has been fighting alongside President Bashar al-Assad's forces in Syria's civil war.

The Turkish pilots were kidnapped by the family of one of the Lebanese hostages in order to press the Turkish government to help secure the group's release. Turkey has some influence with the Syrian opposition, having offered refuge and support to the rebels fighting Assad.

A Lebanese security official said the Turkish hostages were in the custody of Lebanese authorities and were being flown by helicopter to Beirut airport from the 'remote location' where they had been held.

The hostages' release may in fact be a three-way deal, some Lebanese security sources said. They said the release of the Lebanese was contingent on the Syrian government's freeing of prisoners in state detention centers.

An opposition monitoring group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said the government had released dozens of prisoners over the past few days as part of this agreement.

A Lebanese security source released pictures of both the Turkish and Lebanese hostages, all of whom looked healthy. The Lebanese men were inside a jet, waiting to take off. The Turkish pilots were photographed in a vehicle in the dark, wearing winter coats. It was impossible to verify the authenticity of the pictures.

Crowds of relatives and friends were already gathered at Beirut airport and near the hostages' homes to celebrate their return.

A previous attempt to return them failed in May, even as relatives and local politicians gathered at the airport awaiting their arrival.

Syria's civil war has acquired sectarian dimensions that have crossed borders and dragged its neighbors into the conflict. Sunni Muslim countries such as Turkey largely back the Sunni-led uprising against four decades of Assad family rule.

Shi'ite Iran backs Assad, as does Hezbollah, which is Shi'ite and supported by Tehran. Assad is from the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.

(Reporting by Laila Bassam and Erika Solomon; additional reporting by Ayla Jean Yackley in Istanbul; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)

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