Syrian rebels have released Lebanese hostages kidnapped in northern Syria, an Islamist cleric who brokered their release has said.
"Thanks to God their transfer is complete ... They have been handed to the Turkish authorities," said statement from Sheikh Ibrahim al-Zoaby on Friday.
The office of Lebanese PM Najib Mikati confirmed that the hostages were en route back to Beirut.
"The prime minister received a call from [Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet] Davutoglu [saying] the Lebanese hostages in Syria are well and are on their way to Beirut," an aide to Mikati said.
Twelve Lebanese Shia men were among a group of pilgrims returning to Lebanon from Iran when gunmen stopped their bus after it crossed into Syria from Turkey. They released the women and kept the men.
On Tuesday, Lebanon's state news agency accused the Free Syrian Army of the kidnapping but the FSA then denied the claim.
The kidnapping triggered protests in Shia areas of Beirut, raising fears the incident could ignite sectarian conflict in Lebanon.
A private plane owned by former billionaire prime minister Saad Hariri was preparing to fly the pilgrims home, Future News television, owned by Hariri, reported.
The Free Syrian Army, the biggest armed group seeking to overthrow Assad's government, had said on Thursday it was making "every effort" to locate and release the group of pilgrims.
He reiterated that the FSA had no involvement in this week's kidnappings, and condemned "all kidnapping operations, regardless of their nationality or religious belief or sect".
The rebels play down the sectarian element in their 15-month-old uprising. But the spread of Sunni-Shia violence in Lebanon this past week has highlighted the destabilising potential of the conflict pitting Syria's Sunni majority against Assad's Alawites, an offshoot of Shia Islam whose leaders have allied with Shia Iran.
With sectarian tensions escalating in Lebanon, security forces stormed a building in Beirut early on Thursday after a night-time shootout with armed men holed up inside an apartment.
The incident left two people dead and seven more wounded, Lebanese security sources said.
The cause of the clash, during which the men used hand grenades against the security personnel, was a "personal dispute" between at least one of the men and a woman in her early 20s, the sources said.
The latest clashes in Beirut came after the weekend killing of two religious leaders at an army checkpoint in Akkar, a mainly Sunni Muslim region whose inhabitants are hostile to the Syrian government.
The killings ignited street battles in Beirut that left two people dead and 18 wounded.
Multiple violent incidents took place on Wednesday in several areas of Beirut.
Against this backdrop, Saudi Arabia, a strong critic of Assad's rule, and Russia, which has defended him, have both given warning that Syria's strife could reignite civil war in Lebanon.
"There is now ... a real threat of the conflict spilling over into Lebanon," Sergei Lavrov, Russia's foreign minister, said in Moscow on Wednesday.
"Given the history and ethnic and religious make-up of the population, and the principles on which the Lebanese state is based, it could end very badly."
For his part, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud has written an open letter to Michel Suleiman, Lebanon's president, saying:
"Saudi Arabia is deeply concerned. Due to the gravity of the crisis and the possibility of it causing sectarian strife in Lebanon and bringing it back to the shadow of civil war, we are looking to your ... attempts to intervene to and the crisis ... and keep Lebanon away from foreign struggles, especially with the Syrian crisis nearby."
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|Allen L. Jasson|
|William A. Cook|