BEIRUT, Lebanon - A flurry of backroom Middle East diplomacy led to an ambitious international prisoner swap on Saturday that freed Lebanese citizens held by Syrian rebels and Turkish pilots kidnapped by Lebanese gunmen.
Late Saturday, a plane carrying the nine freed Lebanese captives arrived in Beirut from Istanbul, while a plane from Beirut to Istanbul took the Turkish pilots home.
The swap was brokered and carried out by Lebanese, Turkish, Qatari and Palestinian officials, underlining the strong links between the warring parties in Syria and foreign powers, some of which have actively sought to influence the course of the war.
Some local reports said the Syrian government was expected to release a number of female prisoners as demanded by the rebels in exchange for the captives from Lebanon, which is home to Hezbollah, a Syrian ally. Some women were recently released, but it was unclear if that was part of the larger deal.
Full conclusion of the deal would be a rare bright spot in Syria's civil war, which has left more than 100,000 dead, sent millions of refugees streaming across borders and exacerbated sectarian tensions across the Middle East. On Saturday, more than 30 people were killed in fighting east of Damascus, about half of them soldiers killed by a suicide bomber.
Despite the success of the swap on Saturday, it appeared unlikely that the agreement, which involved only one of Syria's hundreds of rebel groups and focused solely on the exchange of captives, could be expanded to open the possibility of talks aimed at ending the war itself.
In fact, the 17-month detention by Sunni rebels left some of the Lebanese captives, all of them Shiites, seeing the war in starkly sectarian terms.
"The situation is worse than you think," Abbas Shuaib, one of the released men, told television reporters after his return to Lebanon. "If those people came to Beirut, they would consider our women free for the taking. This is war against the Shiites." (The rebels in Syria are mainly Sunni, and the president, Bashar Assad, is a member of the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.)
The head of Lebanon's general security agency, Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, accompanied the men on their flight to Beirut and thanked Qatar, Turkey and Assad for facilitating the agreement.
The Lebanese and Turkish captives flew home aboard private Qatari jets. In Turkey, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan joined a crowd at the airport to welcome the released pilots.