BEIRUT: Encouraging signs emerged Friday over the possible release of two kidnapped bishops in Syria, with no new developments reported for the Lebanese pilgrims abducted in Azaz a day after Lebanese officials voiced optimism a deal would be reached soon.
“There are positive signs of the imminent release of the two bishops,” the head of the Syriac League Habib Afram told The Daily Star. “We were informed by [General Security chief] Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim that similar to the deal to free the Azaz hostages, there is a deal to secure the bishops’ release.”
Ibrahim is tasked with following up on the case of the Syrian bishops and the Lebanese hostages in Syria and has been coordinating with a number of regional parties to secure the release of both groups.
Afram said that Turkish authorities, who are helping to resolve the case of the Lebanese pilgrims, informed Ibrahim that they were also working to secure the release of the two bishops.
“They said they [bishops] might be released before Eid al-Adha and they reassured us that they are fine,” he said.
Aleppo’s Greek Orthodox Archbishop Paul Yazigi and Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Yohanna Ibrahim were kidnapped on April 22 by armed men while en route to Aleppo from the Turkish border.
They are reportedly being held by a group of rebels in the Syrian town of Bshaqtin, 20 kilometers northwest of Aleppo. The kidnappers have not made demands to free the bishops.
In remarks made to Al-Jadeed television station, Ibrahim, who traveled to Turkey Thursday night, said efforts to release the nine hostages were on track.
“We are on the right path and we are negotiating, not fighting,” the security chief said.
Optimism remained high that the nine Lebanese Shiite pilgrims would be released soon. They were kidnapped on May 22 of last year in the Aleppo district of Azaz.
The relevant parties were so far responsive toward the negotiation process, a source close to the case told The Daily Star.
The source also said that officials have advised the pilgrims’ relatives to refrain from speaking to the media because their remarks could hurt the delicate negotiation process.
The Syrian regime reportedly agreed to the kidnappers’ demand to release 127 Syrian female detainees and a prominent opposition figure, in exchange for the release of the Lebanese pilgrims.
A spokesperson for the relatives of the pilgrims, Hayat Awali, told a local media outlet that the families were remaining cautious about the release of the pilgrims.
“We will prepare the welcome signs, but we will not hang them until we know the [Lebanese pilgrims] are boarding in Ankara’s airport [to Beirut],” Awali said.
The release of the nine Shiite pilgrims could also hasten the release of two Turkish Airlines pilots who were abducted on the Beirut airport road on Aug. 9.
The kidnappers of pilot Murat Akpinar and his co-pilot Murat Agca demanded the release of the pilgrims in exchange for the Turkish nationals.
Mount Lebanon Prosecutor Judge Claude Karam charged 13 people over the abduction, most of whom are related to the Lebanese hostages in Syria. Three are currently being held in custody in Roumieh Prison.