Lebanese Shia pilgrims abducted in Syria 'could be released soon'

Man standing by burning tyre in Beirut street, 22 May 2012 The abduction of Lebanese pilgrims in Syria sparked violent protests in Beirut

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Lebanon's foreign minister has said that Lebanese Shia pilgrims abducted in Syria over the weekend have been located.

Adnan Mansour said negotiations are ongoing but the captives should be "released very soon".

Reports suggest the pilgrims were kidnapped on their way back from Iran by insurgents hoping to use them for a prisoner swap.

The rebel Free Syrian Army has denied it was responsible.

Mr Mansour said on Wednesday the pilgrims were being held by "a splinter group of the armed Syrian opposition", AFP news agency reported.

The foreign minister told Reuters that he could not say who was conducting the negotiations, but "our information is that, God willing, the Lebanese will be released very soon".

Prisoner release

The pilgrims were travelling back through Syria after a tour of Iran's holy sites when they were kidnapped on Sunday.

When the bus was intercepted after crossing into Syria, the women on board were allowed to go free.

A relative of one of the hostages told Reuters that the Free Syrian Army (FSA) had taken the pilgrims and were demanding the release of its own members being held in Aleppo.

But a senior officer in the FSA has condemned the kidnapping and suggested that the Syrian government was probably behind it.

"The FSA is not at all responsible for the operation... we condemn this abduction, which does not represent the values of the (Syrian) revolution," Mustafa al-Sheikh said on Wednesday.

Iranians targeted
One of the Shia Lebanese pilgrims who was on board a bus carrying a group returning from a tour of holy sites in Iran. Some of the Lebanese pilgrims were released shortly afterwards

The abduction sparked protests in Lebanon, which is deeply divided over the situation in Syria.

Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, head of the Lebanese Shia militant group Hezbollah, appealed for calm on Tuesday after tyres were burned and roads blocked in Beirut.

In a separate development on Wednesday, an Iranian diplomat in Damascus said three Iranian lorry drivers had been abducted in Syria.

The diplomat said the drivers were attacked and taken away after they entered the country via Turkey, carrying cargo, earlier this week.

Syrian rebels have often accused Iran of aiding President Bashar al-Assad's crackdown of their protests.

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