BEIRUT: Caretaker Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour said Monday Turkey was able to play a major role in helping free nine Lebanese hostages held by Syrian rebels since last year. The minister also highlighted that Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria’s war did not affect Lebanon’s disassociation policy.
“Lebanese people ask: Is it possible that after over a year, Turkey, with all its influence, cannot make fruitful efforts? ... We deal with Turkey as a friendly state, we urge it to make efforts [to resolve the case], and we believe it can reach a positive outcome,” Mansour told The Daily Star in an interview at the Foreign Ministry in Beirut.
“I once told a Turkish security official in a meeting that no one believes Turkey can do nothing when it controls the situation in northern [Syria] and supports the opposition,” he said.
“He answered [by] saying: ‘The kidnappers are not under the control of the Syrian opposition.’ But this is an unconvincing answer,” Mansour added.
Eleven Lebanese were kidnapped by Syrian rebels in May last year in the Azaz district of Aleppo, northern Syria, on their way back from religious pilgrimage to Iran. Two were released later that year.
The relatives of the captives believe that given its influence over the Syrian opposition, Turkey could play a major role in securing the release of their loved ones. They have held numerous protests near the Turkish Embassy and other Turkish institutions in Lebanon over the past months.
Last week, unidentified gunmen snatched Turkish Airlines pilot Murat Akpinar and his co-pilot Murat Agca near Beirut’s Rafik Hariri International Airport.
The move appeared linked to the Lebanese hostage crisis after negotiations to free them, mediated by Turkey, appeared to have reached a standstill.
An unknown group claimed responsibility for the operation and said the two pilots would only be freed in return for the release of the nine pilgrims. Relatives of the nine captives denied any involvement in the operation.
Mansour said that while many Lebanese were not convinced that Turkey could do nothing to help win the release of the hostages, this did not justify the abduction of the two Turks.
He also ruled out that Lebanon would take measures against Turkey to pressure it to help in releasing the hostages.
“From the very beginning, we said Turkey is not the side that kidnapped the Lebanese ... the Turkish officials expressed their readiness to mediate the release of the hostages held in Azaz,” he said.
“We have state-to-state relations with Turkey, we have diplomats there along with economic, trade and cultural relations. We are morally and politically responsible for the kidnapping process, that’s why the Lebanese state is doing its best to free the two pilots,” Mansour added.
Mansour said that caretaker Interior Minister Marwan Charbel, General Security and other security bodies were put on alert to identify the kidnappers and work on the release of the two Turkish pilots. “All that we know for now is that they [the two pilots] are okay,” he said.
“We categorically oppose any kidnapping operation that takes place in Lebanon because it tarnishes Lebanon’s reputation and harms its stability and security,” he added.
Separately, Mansour said that Lebanon still adhered to a policy of disassociation toward the unrest in Syria, adding that Hezbollah’s involvement in the war there did not reflect the government’s official stance.
“Hezbollah is not fighting [in Syria] on behalf of the Lebanese government. The Lebanese government’s official policy toward what is happening in Syria is the disassociation policy,” he said. “We cannot say that the Lebanese state abandoned the disassociation policy.”
Hezbollah announced in May its heavy participation in fighting alongside the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. The group played a major role in driving Syrian rebels out of the strategic town of Qusair in June and the district of Khaldieh in Homs last month.
Mansour said that Hezbollah had previously explained the circumstances surrounding its involvement in the Qusair battle.
“Even if Hezbollah is represented in the government ... it is not the government that decided to participate [in Syria’s war],” he said.
Mansour said that accusations made against him of defending Syria’s regime at the expense of Lebanon’s interests did not reflect the truth.
“My opinion is clear ... we should not meddle in the affairs of other countries and spare Lebanon the horrors of war,” he said.
“When I ask questions about weapons brought in and out of Lebanon, gunmen entering Lebanon ... and the whereabouts of Syrian rebels who received treatment in Lebanon after being wounded in battles in Syria ... this does not mean that Lebanon’s foreign minister is defending the regime in Syria,” he said. “What we want is to be spared strife.”
Mansour said that even through Lebanon has disassociated itself from events in Syria, it still feels the conflict’s repercussions, manifested in waves of Syrian refugees flocking into the country.
According to unofficial figures, more than a million Syrian refugees have crossed into Lebanon since the outbreak of violence in Lebanon’s neighbor in March 2011.
The caretaker foreign minister said he was not worried about the possibility of Gulf states deporting some Lebanese over links to Hezbollah.
“They know very well Lebanese in the Gulf are working for their future and do not interfere in the internal affairs of any of these countries, they do not deal with politics,” he said. “I do not think Gulf countries will expel Lebanese nationals from their territories.”
In June, the Gulf Cooperation Council announced it would take measures against Hezbollah loyalists’ residency statuses as well as against their financial and trade transactions.
The move came after Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria’s war.
Also, the European Union blacklisted the military wing of the party last month, saying it had evidence Hezbollah was involved in a bomb attack which targeted Israeli tourists in Bulgaria last year.