BEIRUT (Reuters) - Nine Lebanese citizens held hostage in northern Syria are on a plane in Turkey and will arrive in Beirut soon, and two Turkish pilots kidnapped in retaliation will be released after their return, a security source said on Saturday.
The nine Lebanese were part of a group of 11 seized by Syrian rebels in May 2012. Their families say the men 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.
One of the Lebanese hostage's families kidnapped the Turkish pilots to press Turkey to help secure the Lebanese hostages' release. Turkey has offered refuge and support to Syrian rebels fighting Assad, who have secured large swathes of territory near their shared border.
A high-level Lebanese security source, who asked not to be named, said the Turkish hostages would be released on Saturday as well.
"There is a plane waiting for the Turkish pilots now. I can confirm that they will be released today," he said.
A second security source said the pilots may be discreetly released and put on the plane before the freed Lebanese hostages land in Beirut.
Lebanon's Interior Minister Marwan Charbel told Reuters the Lebanese hostages were expected to land in Beirut around 7 p.m. (1600 GMT)
Crowds of relatives and friends were already gathered at the airport and near the hostages' homes to celebrate their return.
Syria's civil war has acquired a sectarian dimension that crosses regional borders. 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; Editing by Alison Williams)
(c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2013. Check for restrictions at: http://about.reuters.com/fulllegal.asp