BEIRUT: Mount Lebanon Prosecutor Judge Claude Karam Tuesday charged 13 people, relatives of nine Lebanese hostages held in Syria, over their alleged involvement in the kidnapping of two Turkish pilots in a probe that has led to the arrest of three suspects.
The prosecutor’s move drew a quick response from the hostages’ families and a representative from the Higher Shiite Council who denied any role in the abduction of the Turkish pilots.
Karam charged the 13 for suspected involvement in the abduction of the two pilots by using “violence and threatening them with arms as well as inciting kidnappings and undermining the state’s authority,” judicial sources said.
The 13 individuals charged with the kidnapping include three who were arrested last week. The remaining 10, including Hayat Awali, a spokesperson for the families of the Lebanese hostages in Syria, are still free.
Karam referred the case to Mount Lebanon Investigative Judge Ziyad Mkanna, who questioned the three detainees and issued arrest warrants against them.
A date will be scheduled to summon the rest in for questioning.
Caretaker Interior Minister Marwan Charbel denied any arrest warrants had been issued for the other 10 suspects.
“The 10 individuals will be summoned for questioning and testifying over the kidnapping of the two Turks,” Charbel told The Daily Star.
The families of the Lebanese Shiite hostages rejected the charges made against some of them.
“The charges against some of the families in connection with the kidnapping of the two Turkish pilots nullify the families’ ability to follow up the issue of their kidnapped sons because they put them in the category of criminals,” the families said in a statement read to reporters by Mahdi Zogheib, a relative of one of the hostages in Syria.
“We are the families of the kidnapped [Lebanese] and not the kidnappers [of the Turks],” the statement said.
Turkish Airlines pilot Murat Akpinar and his co-pilot Murat Agca were abducted by unidentified gunmen near Beirut airport on Aug. 9. The two are reportedly held in separate locations across the country.
A group calling itself Zuwwar al-Imam Ali al-Reda [visitors to Imam Ali al-Reda] claimed responsibility for the abduction, demanding in exchange the release of nine Lebanese held by Syrian rebels in the northern Syrian town of Azaz near the border with Turkey since May 2012.
Relatives of the Lebanese hostages blame Turkey for not doing enough to win the release of their kin and have staged a number of protests against Turkish institutions in Lebanon.
Turkey, a supporter of the Syrian opposition, has repeatedly said it was exerting all efforts to free the hostages.
A security source said the kidnapping case was of high priority, describing it as a high-profile national case.
“The process of tracking down the kidnappers is still ongoing with the aim of locating the two hostages and arresting the [kidnappers],” the source told The Daily Star.
Sheikh Abbas Zogheib, tasked by the Higher Shiite Council to follow up on the Lebanese hostages in Syria, described the charges as baseless and a “complete mockery.”
“The mere fact that the list of names suspected of kidnapping includes relatives of the hostages in Syria speaks for itself,” Zogheib told The Daily Star.
“We will try to maintain calm on the streets but the situation is becoming more difficult ... as if the aim behind the charges was to provoke [street violence].”Zogheib also said the relatives were innocent and that he believed the charges were groundless.
Asked whether the suspects would respond to the interrogation request, Zogheib said: “On what basis would someone like Haji Hayat [Awali] be charged?”
For her part, Awali denied a role in the abduction but urged the Turkish pilots’ kidnappers not to release them until the Lebanese hostages in Syria were freed.
“How did the judge come to such a conclusion since he did not listen to my testimony?” Awali told Al-Jadeed TV station in Beirut’s southern suburbs. “I have been accused of something I didn’t do.”
“I want to ask the kidnappers to not free the Turks unless our relatives in Syria as well as those detained in Roumieh prison are released,” Awali added.
Another spokesperson for the hostages’ families slammed the Internal Security Forces’ Information Branch, warning that the families would “break the arms” of security personnel if they sought to arrest the 10 suspects. “This matter [arrest of the 10 suspects] will not pass ... The Information Branch has turned the families into kidnappers because it is an accomplice,” Daniel Shoaib told Al-Jadeed TV.
“If they want to arrest us, they should take into consideration that we will break their hands [if they try],” he added.
He added that the families would not allow the Information Branch to approach their neighborhoods and would block roads to the southern suburbs if needed.
Meanwhile, caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati called for a two-way effort with Turkey for the release of Lebanese and Turkish hostages Tuesday, while Ankara urged Beirut not to link the issues together.
The remarks came as Mikati and Charbel met separately with Turkish Ambassador to Lebanon Inan Ozyildiz.
“The Lebanese government is taking all the appropriate measures to reveal the fate of the two Turkish pilots who were kidnapped on the airport road,” Mikati told Ozyildiz during their meeting at the Grand Serail. At the same time, he stressed the importance of efforts by Turkish authorities to help secure the release of the Lebanese held in Azaz, according to a statement released by Mikati’s office.
Charbel’s office said the Turkish ambassador conveyed his country’s wish not to link the issue of the Lebanese hostages in Syria with that of the Turkish pilots.
Charbel agreed with Odyildiz that the two issues should be separated, according to the statement from his office. The statement said Charbel also urged the Turkish ambassador to continue efforts to win the release of the Lebanese hostages. –Additional reporting by Dana Khraiche