By Robert Muller
PRAGUE (Reuters) - Five Czechs who had been missing and presumed kidnapped in Lebanon for five months arrived home on Thursday after the Prague government freed two Lebanese nationals who were wanted by the United States.
The United States said it was "shocked" by the decision to release the two Lebanese, whom U.S. authorities had been trying to extradite, the Czech news agency CTK reported.
The disappearance of the five Czechs was connected by media in both countries and a security source with the detention since 2014 of Lebanese nationals Khaled Merebi and Ali Fayad in the Czech Republic.
Czech officials declined to comment on whether the Czechs were swapped for the Lebanese detainees. But Defense Minister Martin Stropnicky confirmed the connection in an interview with daily Hospodarske Noviny conducted before the men's release.
"Five people will return all right if Fayad is not extradited to the United States. It is intertwined," Stropnicky was quoted as saying by Hospodarske.
The Czechs were reported missing when their abandoned vehicle was found near Kefraya in eastern Lebanon in July last year. On Monday, Lebanese authorities announced that the five had been found and held them until Thursday.
Czech Foreign Minister Lubomir Zaoralek said a plane with them on board landed in Prague on Thursday afternoon.
A Czech court ruled in December that three men including the two Lebanese, charged in the United States with an attempt to sell ground-to-air missiles, cocaine trafficking and other crimes, could be extradited.
The final decision, however, was up to Justice Minister Robert Pelikan and he ruled on Thursday that the two would not be extradited. The Prague City Court said that it ruled upon Pelikan's decision that the men should be released.
"I decided today that we will not heed the request of the United States for the extradition of Mr Fayad and Mr Merebi," Pelikan told reporters. "The law assumes that my decision in a matter like this is of a political nature," he said.
Pelikan said he had spoken to U.S. Ambassador Andrew Shapiro on the matter earlier on Thursday. The embassy could not be reached for comment but CTK quoted a U.S. statement as saying the United States was shocked by the release of the Lebanese.
U.S. authorities suspected the three Lebanese men of trying to sell weapons to U.S. agents pretending to be linked to Colombian guerrilla group FARC. Czech and Lebanese media reported Fayad was a Lebanese intelligence agent.
Fayad's brother was a driver for the five Czechs in Lebanon and went missing at the same time they did. Fayad's lawyer was among the missing Czechs. Czech media said a Czech intelligence officer was also with the group.
(Additonal eporting by Jason Hovet in Prague, Lisa Barrington in Beirut; Writing by Jan Lopatka; Editing by Mark Heinrich)