Swap deal for Turkish pilots possible: SNC

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The families of two Turks kidnapped in Lebanon get a sliver of hope, as Syrian opposition figures say a deal could be done to secure their release

 A swap deal is possible between Syrian rebels holding nine Lebanese pilgrims captive and a group that kidnapped two Turkish pilots in Lebanon, according to the Syrian National Council’s (SNC) Turkey representative, Khaled Khoja.

The Northern Storm Brigades, a Syrian rebel group which operates close to the Turkish border, may release some of the nine Lebanese pilgrims in exchange for the two Turkish pilots, Murat Akpınar and Murat Ağca, who were abducted on Aug. 9 near the Beirut Rafik Hariri International Airport, Khoja told the Hürriyet Daily News yesterday.

Khoja said he did not have any concrete information about such a deal but added that it could mirror a previous deal in which two of the pilgrims were released in exchange for two businessmen captured by Hezbollah. He also said there could be negotiations with the Northern Storm Brigades over the issue.
The Free Syrian Army (FSA), meanwhile, could not immediately be reached for comment.

Eleven Lebanese citizens were kidnapped in the Azaz district of Aleppo in May 2012 as they were returning from a pilgrimage to Iran. Two of the pilgrims were subsequently released, but the other nine remain in captivity.

Khoja said the release of all nine was unlikely to take place anytime soon given that the abductors insist on the release of female Syrian activists held in prisons by Damascus.

“In its latest statement, the Northern Storm Brigades demanded the release of 172 female activists who were captured by the Syrian regime despite not taking up any arms. Many countries, including Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Lebanon and Greece, have attempted to negotiate for the release of Lebanese pilgrims in the past. But the [abductors] are determined to see [the activists released],” said Khoja.

Meanwhile, Lebanese Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour said Aug. 12 Turkey could play a major role in helping secure the pilgrims’ release.

“The Lebanese people ask: Is it possible that after over a year, Turkey, with all its influence, cannot make fruitful efforts? … We deal with Turkey as a friendly state, we urge it to make efforts [to resolve the case], and we believe it can reach a positive outcome,” Mansour told Lebanon’s Daily Star in an interview. “I once told a Turkish security official in a meeting that no one believes Turkey can do nothing when it controls the situation in northern [Syria] and supports the opposition,” he said.

“He answered [by] saying: ‘The kidnappers are not under the control of the Syrian opposition.’ But this is an unconvincing answer,” Mansour said.

In a further sign of escalating tension, the families of Shiite pilgrims have threatened to kidnap any Turkish national in Beirut to protest the detention of their relatives.

“Any Turkish citizen in the southern suburbs and the city of Beirut is a target for [kidnapping] by the families of the Lebanese hostages,” Hayat Awali, a spokesperson for the families of the hostages, told reporters Aug. 12. The families of the pilgrims have called repeatedly for the release of their relatives.

They accuse Turkey of not doing enough to secure the release of their relatives.

“It has been proven to us that the detention of [Mohammad Saleh] is a political move by the Information Branch and a gift from them to Turkey,” Awali said. “Therefore, and in response to that, a large group of the families of the hostages in Azaz are heading to the streets of Beirut and any Turk seen there will be kidnapped,” she added, according to Lebanese media.

Saleh was arrested Aug. 11 on charges of having links to the kidnappers of two Turkish Airlines pilots who were abducted on Aug. 9 near the Beirut Rafik Hariri International Airport. Lebanese security sources have identified the abductors and their hiding place, Anadolu Agency reported.

Ali Jamil Saleh, son of one of the kidnapped pilgrims, has been identified as the primary suspect in the abduction, the state-run agency reported, adding that the pilots were being held in southern Lebanon.

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