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A top executive with CGI Federal, one of the contractors paid millions to create the ObamaCare website, says “no amount of testing” could have prevented the site’s problem-plagued start.
Senior Vice President Cheryl Campbell’s remarks are part of prepared testimony she will give before a Republican-led House hearing Thursday on the insurance-marketplace site. They also appear to challenge new claims by the administration that a lack of adequate testing was part of the problem.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing is the first since the site’s disastrous Oct. 1 launch — marked by crashes, slow response times and its inability to let customers make purchases.
Several contractors are set to testify Thursday, and will likely face tough questioning from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, though prepared testimony indicates the witnesses may try to spread the blame around — including to government officials overseeing the project.
Prepared testimony from contractor Optum/QSSI blamed in part a “late decision” to require customers to register before browsing for insurance, which could have helped overwhelm the registration system.
“This may have driven higher simultaneous usage of the registration system that wouldn’t have occurred if consumers could window-shop anonymously,” said Andy Slavitt, representing QSSI’s parent company.
In the prepared testimony, Campbell argues that with a system “this complex with so many concurrent users, it is not unusual to discover problems that need to be addressed once the software goes into a live production environment.”
“No amount of testing within reasonable time limits can adequately replicate a live environment of this nature,” she adds, according to the prepared testimony.
Campbell said issues with HealthCare.gov have continued to improve over the past two weeks, but additional challenges are occurring as more users get past the registration screen and buy insurance — including “data assurance issues.”
She said such problems can be fixed through “tuning, optimization and application improvements.” However, Campbell also said that the buck ultimately stops with the Department of Health and Human Services, which she said “serves the important role of systems integrator or “quarterback’ on this project and is the ultimate responsible party for the end-to-end performance.”
The testimony comes as the Obama administration offered new details and explanations on Wednesday. The administration said the system didn’t get enough testing, especially at a high user volume. It blamed a compressed time frame for meeting the Oct. 1 deadline to open the insurance markets. Basic “alpha and user testing” are now completed, but that’s supposed to happen before a launch, not after.
The Health and Human Services explanation identified some bugs that have gotten little outside attention.
For example, technical problems have surfaced that are making it hard for people to complete the application and plan-shopping functions. That’s a big concern because those stages are further along in the signup process than the initial registration, where many consumers have been getting tripped up. The problems are being analyzed and fixes are planned, the department said.
The explanation, posted online in a department blog and accompanying graphic, identified other broad areas of problems and outlined fixes underway but in most cases incomplete:
– Unexpectedly high consumer interest that overwhelmed the system in its initial days. Equipment has been added to handle the load and system design has been improved. More fixes are in progress.
– Lack of a way for consumers to browse their health plan options without first having to set up a user account. A partial fix is in place.
– Incorrect or duplicate information in enrollments is being delivered to insurance companies. Some software fixes that should help address the issue have been completed, others are underway.
– Difficulties for consumers trying to create user accounts, including drop-down menus that didn’t work. Design changes and software fixes should address the situation.
On Thursday, the House Energy and Commerce Committee will line up contractors, including CGI Federal, the lead developer of the website, and QSSI, which designed a back-room operation known as the federal data services hub. The hub is integral to verifying applicants’ personal information and income details, and the administration says it is working as designed.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
At least two of the key suspects in the Benghazi terror attack were at one point working with Al Qaeda senior leadership, sources familiar with the investigation tell Fox News.
The sources said one of the suspects was believed to be a courier for the Al Qaeda network, and the other a bodyguard in Afghanistan prior to the 2001 terror attacks.
The direct ties to the Al Qaeda senior leadership undercut early characterizations by the Obama administration that the attackers in Benghazi were isolated “extremists” — not Al Qaeda terrorists — with no organizational structure or affiliation.
The head of the House Intelligence Committee, Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., who receives regular intelligence briefings and whose staffers continue to investigate the Benghazi terrorist attack, would not discuss specific suspects or their backgrounds.
But he said the ties to Al Qaeda senior leadership, also known as Al Qaeda core, are now established.
“It is accurate that of the group being targeted by the bureau, at this point, there’s strong Al Qaeda ties,” Rogers told Fox News. “You can still be considered to have strong ties because you are in the ring of operations of Al Qaeda core. … There are individuals that certainly fit that definition.”
Counterterrorism expert Thomas Joscelyn, a senior fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told Fox News that investigators are finding “more and more ties — not just to Al Qaeda’s branch in North Africa … but Al Qaeda senior leadership in Pakistan.”
A year ago, Fox News’ Bret Baier was first to report that a former Guantanamo detainee, Sufian bin Qumu, was suspected of training jihadists in eastern Libya for the attack.
Now, sources tell Fox News that Benghazi suspect Faraj al Chalabi, also a Libyan national whose ties to Usama bin Laden date back to 1998, is believed to be a former bodyguard who was with the Al Qaeda leadership in Afghanistan in 2001.
After the Benghazi attack, al Chalabi fled to Pakistan where reports suggest he was held, then later returned to Libyan custody and eventually released. He was first publicly identified as a suspected terrorist in 1998 by the regime of former Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi for his alleged role in the murder of a German intelligence official, Silvan Becker and his wife. An Interpol arrest warrant in March 1998 named al Chalabi, two other Libyans and bin Laden as the likely perpetrators.
“Our sources say al Chalabi is suspected of bringing materials from the compound to Benghazi to Al Qaeda senior leadership in Pakistan. It’s not clear what those materials consisted of but he is known to have gone back to Pakistan immediately after the attack,” Joscelyn said.
Separately, and for the first time, Rogers laid out a timeline for the attack which suggests significant advance planning. According to the congressman, there was an “aspirational phase” several months out, where the idea of an attack was thrown around, followed by “weeks” of operational planning, and then the ramp up to the Sept. 11 assault which lasted up to several days. This assessment is in stark contrast to initial administration statements that the attack was “spontaneous” and achieved with little planning.
“I believe that they had an operational phase that lasted at least a couple of weeks, maybe even longer. And then an initiation phase that lasted a couple or three days prior to the event itself. And so this notion that they just showed up and decided this was a spontaneous act does not comport with the information at least with what we have seen in the intelligence community,” Rogers told Fox News.
Some counterterrorism analysts concur with Roger’s assessment, describing the mortars used to strike the CIA annex in the second wave of the attack as “smoking gun” evidence — as mortars require skill to fire, and typically must be pre-positioned to ensure accuracy. On Sept. 11, two mortars struck the CIA annex, killing former Navy SEALs Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods.
The opposing analysis is that the mortars were set in the early morning hours of Sept. 11, and that the terrorists did not bring equipment with them that suggests significant planning.
Fox News contacted the FBI which is in the lead on the Benghazi investigation, as well as the CIA and the National Counterterrorism Center, or NCTC. Both the NCTC and the CIA declined to comment. There was no immediate response from the FBI.
The principal contractors responsible for the federal government’s trouble-plagued health insurance website say the Obama administration shares responsibility for the snags that have crippled the system.
Executives of CGI Federal, which built the federal HealthCare.gov website serving 36 states, and QSSI, which designed the part that verifies applicants’ income and other personal details, are testifying Thursday before the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
The hearing comes as President Barack Obama’s allies are starting to fret about the political fallout. Democrats had hoped to run for re-election next year on the benefits of the health care law for millions of uninsured Americans. Instead, computer problems are keeping many consumers from signing up through new online markets.
One House Democrat says the president needs to “man up” and fire somebody, while others are calling for signup deadlines to be extended and a reconsideration of the penalties individuals will face next year if they remain uninsured.
On that point, a change in the timeline for signing up for coverage is underway, the White House said. Consumers have until Dec. 15 to apply for coverage that’s effective Jan. 1. Even though open enrollment lasts until March 31, people would face a penalty if they postpone buying coverage beyond mid-February. Calling that a “disconnect,” the White House said officials will soon issue policy guidance allowing consumers to sign up by the end of March without penalty.
The focus on the contractors is a first step for GOP investigators. After the failure of their drive to defund “Obamacare” by shutting down the government, they’ve been suddenly handed a new line of attack by the administration itself. Administration officials, including Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, are to testify next week.
Cheryl Campbell, senior vice president of CGI, suggested in prepared testimony that Congress should look beyond the contractors. HHS “serves the important role of systems integrator or ‘quarterback’ on this project and is the ultimate responsible party for the end-to-end performance,” she said.
Overwhelming interest from consumers triggered the website problems, she said. “No amount of testing within reasonable time limits can adequately replicate a live environment of this nature,” she said.
Andy Slavitt, representing QSSI’s parent company, said the operation’s virtual back room, known as the federal data hub, is working well despite some bugs. But his company was also involved with another part of the system, a component for registering individual consumer accounts that became an online bottleneck.
Slavitt blamed the administration, saying that a late decision to require consumers to create accounts before they could browse health plans contributed to the overload. “This may have driven higher simultaneous usage of the registration system that wouldn’t have occurred if consumers could window-shop anonymously,” he said.
Rep. Joe Pitts, R-Pa., chairman of the panel’s health subcommittee, said he wants to focus on the administration’s decision not to allow browsing, or window-shopping. That’s a standard feature of e-commerce sites, including Medicare.gov for seniors. Lack of a browsing capability forced all users to first go through the laborious process of creating accounts, overloading that part of the site.
“Who made that decision? When was it made? Why was it made?” Pitts asked.
Acknowledging what’s been obvious to many outside experts, the administration said Wednesday that the system didn’t get enough testing, especially at a high user volume, before going live. It blamed a compressed time frame for meeting the Oct. 1 deadline to open the insurance markets. Basic “alpha and user testing” are now completed, but that’s supposed to happen before a launch, not after.
The administration provided no timetable to fix extensive computer snags but said technicians are deep into the job. Its explanation, posted online in an HHS blog and accompanying graphic, identified six broad areas of problems and outlined fixes underway but in most cases incomplete.
The HHS explanation identified some bugs that have gotten little outside attention. Technical problems have surfaced that are making the application and plan-shopping functions difficult to complete. That’s a concern because those stages are farther along in the signup process than the initial registration, where many consumers have been getting tripped up. The problems are being analyzed and fixes are planned.
Meanwhile, House Democrats are starting to worry aloud about persistent problems with the rollout.
Rep. Richard Nolan, D-Minn., told The Associated Press the computer fiasco has “damaged the brand” of the health care law.
“The president needs to man up, find out who was responsible, and fire them,” Nolan said. He did not name anyone.
Former White House chief of staff Bill Daley, interviewed Thursday on “CBS This Morning,” said that Obama “can’t just get stuck on this for the next several weeks.” As for calls that Sebelius be fired, Daley said that would be like firing the captain of the Titanic “after the ship hit the iceberg.”
Obama says he’s as frustrated as anyone and has promised a “tech surge” to fix the balky website. White House spokesman Jay Carney said the administration will be more transparent about the problems. After more than 20 days without briefing the media, HHS will start regular sessions on Thursday, he said.
In light of the computer problems, some Democrats are saying Obama should consider extending open enrollment season beyond March 31 and revisit the penalties for individuals who don’t sign up and remain uninsured. Under the law, virtually all Americans must carry health insurance starting next year or face fines.
Associated Press writers Josh Lederman and Laurie Kellman contributed to this report.
By Luke Baker
Thu Oct 24, 2013 7:37am EDT
(Reuters) – German and French accusations that the United States has run spying operations in their countries, including possibly bugging Chancellor Angela Merkel’s mobile phone, are likely to dominate a meeting of EU leaders starting on Thursday.
(Reuters) – German and French accusations that the United States has run spying operations in their countries, including possibly bugging Chancellor Angela Merkel’s mobile phone, are likely to dominate a meeting of EU leaders starting on Thursday.
The two-day Brussels summit, called to tackle a range of social and economic issues, will now be overshadowed by debate on how to respond to the alleged espionage by Washington against two of its closest European Union allies.
For Germany the issue is particularly sensitive. Not only does the government say it has evidence the chancellor’s personal phone was monitored, but the very idea of bugging dredges up memories of eavesdropping by the Stasi secret police in the former East Germany, where Merkel grew up.
Following leaks by data analyst Edward Snowden, which revealed the reach of the U.S. National Security Agency’s vast data-monitoring programs, Washington finds itself at odds with a host of important allies, from Brazil to Saudi Arabia.
In an unusually strongly worded statement on Wednesday evening, Merkel’s spokesman said the chancellor had spoken to President Barack Obama to seek clarity on the spying charges.
“She made clear that she views such practices, if proven true, as completely unacceptable and condemns them unequivocally,” the statement read.
White House spokesman Jan Carney said Obama had assured Merkel that the United States “is not monitoring and will not monitor” the chancellor’s communications, leaving open the possibility that it had happened in the past.
A White House official declined to say whether Merkel’s phone had previously been bugged. “I’m not in a position to comment publicly on every specific alleged intelligence activity,” the official said.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle has summoned the U.S. ambassador to Berlin to discuss the issue.
Germany’s frustration follows outrage in France since Le Monde newspaper reported the NSA had collected tens of thousands of French phone records between December 2012 and January 2013.
President Francois Hollande has made clear he plans to put the spying issue on the summit agenda, although it is not clear what that will ultimately achieve.
While Berlin and Paris are likely to find sympathy among many of the EU’s 28 member states, domestic security issues are not a competence of the European Union. The best that may be hoped for is an expression of support from leaders and calls for a full explanation from the United States.
“Between friends, there must be trust. It has been shaken. We expect answers from Americans quickly,” European commissioner for financial regulation Michel Barnier, a Frenchman, said in a message on Twitter.
DATA PRIVACY RULES
The furor over the alleged espionage could encourage member states to back tougher data privacy rules currently being drafted by the European Union. The European Parliament this week approved an amended package of legislation that would overhaul EU data protection rules that date from 1995.
The new rules would restrict how data collected in Europe by firms such as Google and Facebook is shared with non-EU countries, introduce the right of EU citizens to request that their digital traces be erased, and impose fines of 100 million euros ($138 million) or more on rule breakers.
The United States is concerned that the regulations, if they enter into law, will raise the cost of doing business and handling data in Europe. Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft and others have lobbied hard against the proposals.
Given the spying accusations, France and Germany – the two most influential countries in EU policy – may succeed in getting member states to push ahead on negotiations with the parliament to complete the data regulations and make them tougher.
That could mean an agreement is reached early next year, with the laws possibly coming into force in 2015. For the United States, this could substantially change how data privacy rules are implemented globally.
It may also complicate relations between the United States and the EU over an agreement to share a large amount of data collected via Swift, the international system used for transferring money electronically, which is based in Europe.
Among the revelations from Snowden’s leaks is that the United States may have violated the Swift agreement, accessing more data than it was allowed to.
The European Parliament voted on Wednesday to suspended Swift and the spying accusations may make EU member states support a firm line, complicating the United States’ ability to collect data it says is critical in combating terrorism.
Despite the outrage in Paris and Berlin, the former head of France’s secret services said the issue was being blown out of proportion and no one should be surprised by U.S. spying.
“I’m bewildered by such worrying naivite. You’d think the politicians don’t read the reports they’re sent – there shouldn’t be any surprise,” Bernard Squarcini told Le Figaro.
“The agencies know perfectly well that every country, even when they cooperate on anti-terrorism, spies on its allies. The Americans spy on us on the commercial and industrial level like we spy on them, because it’s in the national interest to defend our businesses. No one is fooled.”
(Writing by Luke Baker; additional reporting by Madeline Chambers and Noah Barkin in Berlin and Alexandria Sage in Paris; editing by David Stamp)
Colleen Ritzer, 24, was found dead behind a Massachusetts high school late Tuesday. A 14-year-old student was charged with her murder.
A 14-year-old boy killed a math teacher and dumped her body behind the Massachusetts high school where she taught, police said Wednesday.
Philip Chism showed no emotion in Salem court as he was ordered held without bail for the murder of Colleen Ritzer.
The beloved 24-year-old math instructor was found dead in a patch of woods near Danvers High School after midnight Tuesday, authorities said.
“Everyone that knew and loved Colleen knew of her passion, her teaching and how she mentored each and every one of her students,” Ritzer’s heartbroken family said in a statement.
Patrick Whittemore/Boston Herald
14-year-old Philip Chism was ordered held without bail after he was arraigned as an adult in Salem District Court on Wednesday.
Prayers go out to Mrs.Ritzers family and friends she was a great teacher #RestInPeace
— King Thrower (@Moseph_Janson) October 23, 2013
Essex District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett said, “She was a very, very respected, loved teacher. It’s a terrible tragedy for the entire Danvers community.”
The teen suspect was found a short time later wandering along a state highway in the neighboring town of Topsfield, about 24 miles north of Boston.
Investigators, including representatives from the state’s Medical Examiner’s office, pull the body of Colleen Ritzer, 24, from the woods behind Danvers High School on Wednesday.
Chism will be tried as an adult. His mother wiped away tears during his courtroom appearance.
Police began searching for Ritzer after being alerted that she did not return home from work Tuesday or answer her cell phone.
Cops combed the area around the school after finding blood in a second-floor bathroom, Blodgett said.
Police did not release a motive or the cause of death.
@DanversPolice via Twitter
14-year-old Philip Chism was reported missing hours before investigators found the body of Colleen Ritzer, 24, behind Danvers High School late Tuesday. He was later charged with her murder.
“She was just filled with joy,” said Charlotte Dzerkacz, a middle school Spanish teacher and Ritzer’s best friend.
Chism — a 6-foot-tall star junior varsity soccer player — was also reported missing Tuesday when he failed to come home from school.
He was last seen at the local Hollywood Hits movie theater. A manager there said he had bought a ticket for a 4:30 p.m. showing of the Woody Allen movie “Blue Jasmine.”
Colleen Ritzer, a 24-year-old math teacher, was found in a patch of woods behind Danvers High School late Tuesday.
A police report indicated Chism knew Ritzer through Danvers High, but didn’t elaborate. The report also noted statements by Chism and evidence, including video, collected in the school and nearby wooded area.
Students were stunned that Chism, who had easily made friends after recently moving to the area from Tennessee, was accused of murder.
The new DHS slogan should be “Find something good in every day” in honor of a down to earth math teacher, Colleen Ritzer #DanversStrong
— Colby Sedlier (@colbysedlier24) October 23, 2013
“We’re all just a family. It just amazes me really,” said Kyle Cahill, a junior who also plays soccer at the school. “He wasn’t violent at all. He was really the opposite of aggressive.”
Colleen Ritzer, 24, was found dead late Tuesday after investigators found blood in a school bathroom.
But other students said Chism served several detentions since starting school in September, sometimes going at least twice a week and on Saturdays.
Public schools in Danvers, which has a population of roughly 26,000, were closed Wednesday.
The Red Sox held a moment of silence to honor Ritzer before Game 1 of the World Series.
The 24-year-old math teacher’s body was found in the woods behind Danvers High School, about 20 miles north of Boston.
Hundreds of students and locals turned out for a candlelight memorial service organized by members of the school’s National Honor Society.
“She made it fun for us to go to math class,” said Marisa Belthoff, 14, a student in Ritzer’s geometry class.
“It still doesn’t feel real,” Belthoff added. “It feels like she’s still going to be there when we get back.”
@DanversPolice via Twitter
14-year-old Philip Chism was charged with killing math teacher Colleen Ritzer, 24 – who was found dead behind the school late Tuesday.
Ritzer lived with her parents in Andover and graduated magna cum laude from Assumption College in 2011 with a degree in math and a minor in psychology.
She was pursuing a master’s degree at Salem State University.
The enthusiastic teacher used her Twitter account to assign homework and wrote she was a “math teacher often too excited about the topics I’m teaching.”
With News Wire Services
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Jane McManus | ESPNNewYork.com
FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Rex Ryan doesn’t want to hear it.
During Tuesday’s media call, New england Patriots coach Bill Belichick said the New York Jets pushed on field goal attempts as well, referencing an irksome penalty on Chris Jones in overtime that led to a 30-27 Jets win Sunday at MetLife Stadium.
The Jets’ coach, however, has clearly run out of patience with Belichick’s grousing and denied that his team pushed.
He’s got to make up his mind. Was he aware of this thing? Was it second-level, all this kind of jazz? Or now what the story is … we did it? OK, I got you.
– Rex Ryan, on Bill Belichick
“That’s not true,” Ryan said. “He’s got to make up his mind. Was he aware of this thing? Was it second-level, all this kind of jazz? Or now what the story is … we did it? OK, I got you.
“The fact is we’re moving on, we earned that victory plain and simple, and we’re focused on Cincinnati now.”
Immediately after Sunday’s game, Belichick said he thought the pushing was legal because it wasn’t from the second level, but on Monday he said he was wrong about the rule.
“[Special-teams coordinator] Ben [Kotwica] did a great job teaching us what we can do and can’t do and how to get a block on a field goal,” Coples said. “As far as [Belichick's] comment, I’m past it. We won.”
Offensive lineman Willie Colon, who was on the field when Nick Folk‘s unsuccessful 56-yard field goal attempt was nullified by the penalty on Jones, didn’t want to add fuel to the simmering disagreement, but he emphasized that the rule was interpreted correctly on the field.
“I can’t give you how I honestly feel about it, but it’s in the rulebooks,” Colon said. “Everybody was aware of it. The refs made a good call. It wasn’t like the refs made a call that never happened. They clearly did it.”
ESPN.com news services
Washington Redskins safety Brandon Meriweather‘s suspension for illegal hits in Sunday’s game against the Chicago Bears was reduced to one game without pay Wednesday from the two-game ban he received earlier this week.
Meriweather’s appeal was heard Wednesday by hearing officer Ted Cottrell. He will now be forced to sit out the Redskins’ game Sunday against the Denver Broncos.
Meriweather was flagged twice for personal fouls in the Redskins’ 45-41 win over the Bears. He was called for a helmet-to-helmet hit on receiver Alshon Jeffery at the end of a 28-yard catch late in the third quarter. Late in the fourth quarter, Meriweather launched into receiver Brandon Marshall after he dropped a pass in the end zone.
It’s not the first time the NFL has punished Meriweather. He was fined $42,000 for two hits in a Week 2 loss at Green Bay. And he was fined $50,000 for a hit in 2010 with New england and accrued $45,000 in fines a year later with Chicago.
Bennett said on his radio show on WSCR-670 in Chicago on Monday, “I still want to punch him in the face.”
Bears receiver Brandon Marshall said after Sunday’s game that the NFL should consider banning Meriweather from the league.
“I don’t know [Bennett] personally, but he had a chance to say whatever he wanted to during the game, after the game — and the kid didn’t open his mouth,” Hall said. “No respect for a guy who wants to take a shot after the fact. No respect for a guy like that.”
“Guys like that, maybe he needs to get suspended or taken out of the game completely. … I understand big hits. That’s part of our game,” Marshall said Sunday. “But when you have a guy that does it week in and week out, that’s when it becomes a problem.”
Redskins cornerback Josh Wilson scoffed at the idea that Meriweather should be kicked out of the league. He and Hall both pointed to safety Reed Doughty, who took a vicious hit while diving for an onside kick and suffered a concussion.
“Brandon Marshall would be kicked out of the league for pushing off every time he gets to the top of the route,” Wilson said. “Every time a receiver comes in and cracks on a safety, he should be kicked out of the league for hitting him. The guy that hit Reed Doughty on the kickoff — I could hear it from the sideline … no one says anything about punching [that player] in the face. It has nothing to do with anybody having a vendetta against anyone. We’re just out there trying to play football the best way we know how.
“Let the league decide what they do. Let the refs throw the flag, and let’s just play the game. … It’s football. You signed up for this.”
ESPN.com Redskins reporter John Keim contributed to this report.
Nine Lebanese hostages were freed last week. Photograph: Hussein Malla/AP
Syrian authorities have released 10 women jailed for helping the opposition, the first of 126 women expected to be freed in the final stages of a three-way prisoner and hostage swap, activists said.
The women’s release was the main demand of kidnappers in northern Syria who had held nine Lebanese men hostage for 17 months. Those hostages and two Turkish pilots abducted in Lebanon were freed last week under a deal negotiated by Qatar.
“They [the 10 women] were released overnight. We do not know if more will be released today or later, or if that is it. We are waiting,” said a Syrian human rights activist.
Syria has made no official comment about the release, nor has it acknowledged having any role in a hostage exchange deal.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a pro-opposition monitoring group, said Damascus had released dozens of prisoners last week, who also may have been part of the deal.
Syrian rebels kidnapped the Lebanese men in May 2012, accusing them of belonging to Hezbollah, whose militants are fighting alongside Assad’s forces in Syria. The men’s families say they were pilgrims who had been on their way home from visiting Shia shrines in Iran.
The Turkish pilots were abducted by relatives of the Lebanese hostages to put pressure on a country they believe holds sway with the opposition. Turkey hosts many opposition groups and has generally kept its border open to the rebels.
The long deadlock in hostage negotiations was finally broken by a new push from Turkey and Qatar, whose officials acted as mediators to the final deal.
Little information has emerged about the women being released or when they were originally detained. But they are believed to be those whose release Syrian rebels had originally demanded as the price for freeing the Lebanese hostages.