BEIRUT: A Lebanese man who was kidnapped with a group of 10 other Lebanese Shia pilgrims in Syria in May arrived home on Saturday, hours after Syrian rebels released him as a “goodwill gesture”.
Hussein Omar is the first of the group, seized after they crossed into Syria from Turkey, to be freed.
Omar told reporters in Beirut that the kidnappers had promised him that they would release the rest of the group within days.
The kidnapping inflamed tension in Lebanon, a country divided between friends and foes of the 17-month armed revolt against Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad.
Omar, a father of eight, was greeted with ululation, fireworks and a crowd of women and men throwing rice.
Wearing a white shirt, a dark trousers and a red tie with a Turkish flag, Omar sat on a chair in the street in the poor southern suburb of Beirut where he lives, smiling as he greeted dozens of relatives and friends.
He said he was wearing the Turkish flag in gratitude to the Turkish government for helping secure his release.
“If the Lebanese (government) want to solve this issue they should be talking (more) to the Turks, they are the ones who are following up on this,” Omar told reporters.
Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati said he received a call from Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to inform him of Omar’s release.
A statement from Mikati’s office said he hoped that Turkish authorities would continue in its efforts to secure the release all kidnapped Lebanese in Syria as soon as possible.
Turkey has strong ties with the Syrian opposition, and most of the leadership of the rebel Free Syrian Army is based in Turkey. It also shelters army defectors and allows foreign funds and weapons to reach rebels fighting Assad, sources say.
Omar said he was notified of his release when he was separated from the rest of the group at midnight on Friday. “We were staying in a villa in the middle of an olive orchard, they came to move us to another place and they separated me from the group. I did not know they were releasing me then,” he said.
“The big celebration will be when all of the men are released,” he said.
The kidnapping of Lebanese pilgrims, along with the abduction of another Shia man this month in Syria, triggered tit-for-tat seizing of Syrian activists in Lebanon.
With echoes of Lebanon’s own civil war, the kidnappings reinforced fears that the Syria conflict could trigger more instability in Lebanon, where Damascus has had a major influence over politics and security for decades.
Al Jazeera news channel had showed footage of Omar crossing on foot into Turkey accompanied by three men and carrying a small bag. It quoted him as saying he was well treated and he urged Arabs to support the revolt against Assad.