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Lebanese nationals return home after Turkish hostage swap

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BEIRUT, Lebanon (CNN) — Nine Lebanese nationals abducted 17 months ago in Syria returned home on Saturday after a multinational deal to secure their release, officials said.

They arrived at Beirut-Rafic Hariri International Airport on a flight from Turkey, where they were sent after being freed Friday, according to Lebanon’s state-run National News Agency (NNA).

Lebanese Minister of Foreign Affairs Adnan Mansour and Interior Minister Marwan Charbel, together with the freed Lebanese hostages’ relatives, were at the airport to welcome them, NNA said.

Their return follows the release of two Turkish Airlines pilots who were abducted in Beirut two months ago, NNA said. The pilots arrived Saturday in Istanbul, where they were welcomed by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s semi-official Anadolu Agency reported.

Turkish President Abdullah Gul spoke to the pilots by phone, Anadolu said.

The nine Lebanese were kidnapped in May 2012 in Aleppo as they were returning from a religious pilgrimage to Iran, their relatives said. Some in Syria accused them of being members of Hezbollah, a Shia Islamic militant group.

The pilots were going from the Beirut airport to a hotel when their bus was ambushed on August 9. They may have been targeted in retaliation for the Lebanese abductions because a number of Lebanese Shiites oppose the Turkish government’s support for rebels in Syria.

Palestinian officials, as well as the governments of Qatar and Turkey, played a role in securing the swap, Lebanese officials said.

Free passage for many inside Syria remains out of reach. Saturday, the United Nations’ humanitarian chief called for a cease-fire in Moadamiyeh in rural Damascus so that aid workers could evacuate thousands of civilians trapped in the conflict, which has killed more than 100,000 people since it began in March 2011, according to a U.N. figure.

“The humanitarian community has stressed time and time again that people must not be denied life-saving help and that the fighting has to stop,” Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Valerie Amos said in statement.

Aid groups have been barred from Moadamiyeh for months, she said.

“I call on all parties to agree an immediate pause in hostilities in Moadamiyeh to allow humanitarian agencies unhindered access to evacuate the remaining civilians and deliver lifesaving treatment and supplies in areas where fighting and shelling is ongoing,” said Amos, who is also the U.N. emergency relief coordinator.

Thousands of families also are trapped elsewhere in Syria, including in Nubil, Zahra, old Aleppo town, old Homs town and Hassakeh, she said.

By Mohammed Jamjoom and Tom Watkins

Mohammed Jamjoom reported from Beirut and Neda Farshbaf reported from Atlanta. Tom Watkins wrote in Atlanta.

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