Intense diplomatic efforts finally secured the release of kidnapped Turkish pilots on Oct. 19 as officials confirmed that the Shiite pilgrims kidnapped in Syria also returned home at around the same time after first being delivered to Turkey.
The two Turkish Airlines pilots abducted two months ago, Murat Akpınar and Murat Ağca, arrived at Istanbul Atatürk after being handed over to Turkish authorities in Lebanon.
The National Intelligence Organization (MİT), diplomats and security authorities’ intense efforts to end their captivity coincided with the return of the Lebanese Shiite pilgrims, whom Syrian rebels accused of being Iranian spies.
The two Turkish pilots were kidnapped Aug. 9 in a majority Shiite area of Beirut by family members of one of the Lebanese hostages in Syria. MİT chief Hakan Fidan, Lebanese officials and Qatar’s foreign minister were all involved with the process of the release, according to Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, who thanked everyone on Twitter.
The pilots were brought to Beirut’s Rafic al-Hariri international airport by a helicopter, where they were met by Turkish Ambassador İnan Özyıldız, after being released and delivered to Lebanese authorities. A Qatari plane carrying them landed at Istanbul Atatürk airport late on Oct. 19, according to daily Hürriyet.
They were greeted by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and their relatives at the airport. Their release was officially confirmed by Foreign Minister Davutoğlu a few hours before they arrived.
“I have just spoken with them a few moments ago. They are sending greetings to the Turkish people. They are about to depart to Turkey,” Davutoğlu said via Twitter a few moments before his live comments.
Pilots say they did not receive any ill-treatment
Akpınar also confirmed that neither of them received any ill-treatment while they were hostages in his first remarks minutes after landing in Istanbul.
“The first month was very difficult. We were transferred eight times, each time as if it was a new kidnapping. Right after the abduction, we were brought somewhere very close to the airport. We could hear the air planes,” Akpınar said, adding they tried to get along well with their kidnappers.
“We chose to have a good understanding with them. And we did, so much that one of our [kidnappers] even decided to call his new son Murat,” Akpınar also said.
Akpınar said that an operation would have been a very poor decision as more than 100 people were guarding them. “100 people could have been killed if an operation was to be conducted. We thank the [Turkish officials], we knew that they would not abandon us there.”
Freed Lebanese hostages fly back simultaneously
The plane carrying the nine Shiite pilgrims landed in Beirut on the same night, with a live video from Lebanese television, showing a Qatari jet landing at Beirut International Airport and Lebanese officials lining up to greet the men.
One of the released hostages posed with a Hezbollah flag over his shoulder, saying claims that he had been a member of Hezbollah were false at the time of the kidnapping, but that he now saw himself as a Hezbollah soldier.
The Syrian rebels who kidnapped the pilgrims claimed the group was in fact foreign intruders sent to help the Syrian president and they were most likely Hezbollah members or Iranian spies.
Two issues unrelated: FM
Despite the timing of the events, Davutoğlu said the return of the pilgrims and the pilots should not be seen as related.
“We also gave our attention to the Lebanese pilgrims, even though it wasn’t part of our responsibility; we approached the situation from a humanitarian aspect. We gave our best efforts on that too, but we already said it wasn’t right in principle to relate those two events,” Davutoğlu said.
“Turkey contributed greatly to the pilgrims’ release as well, but these two should not be connected,” the foreign minister added.
The nine Lebanese Shiite pilgrims were delivered to Turkey first, Lebanon’s interior minister announced Oct. 18, adding that the release of the pilots would come shortly after.
Lebanese caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati has previously said in a statement the release of the nine pilgrims came about with the help of the Turkish foreign minister, Qatari Foreign Minister Khalid bin Mohamed al-Attiyah and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
The announcement came as Lebanon’s security chief traveled to Turkey to hold talks over the fate of Akpınar and Ağca, before moving on to Damascus.
Security Chief Abbas Ibrahim conducted talks with Turkish intelligence agency representatives and other Turkish officials, with discussions focusing both on the pilots and the nine pilgrims who were kidnapped in Syria in May 2012.
The group responsible for the kidnapping of the pilots also released a statement around the time of Ibrahim’s visit, saying they would be willing to exchange the pilots in return for the Lebanese pilgrims.
Ibrahim also traveled to Damascus following the visit to Turkish authorities prior to the release.
The fate of over 200 Syrian women, however, remains unknown as no details have been given on their status. The women were also reportedly part of the agreements that eventually affected the release of the pilots and the pilgrims.