BEIRUT: Relatives of nine Lebanese hostages held in Syria renewed protests against Turkish organizations in Lebanon Friday because of ongoing fighting where the hostages were being held.
“We are trying to pressure for the release of our family because we are concerned about their safety after what has happened” Saeed Saleh, one of the relatives, told The Daily Star.
Although they were given assurances that the hostages are safe, “no one knows what can happen” Saleh said.
A group of the relatives, mainly women and children, gathered at the Azarieh building complex in Downtown Beirut where a Turkish Airlines office and a Turkish cultural center are located to protest.
Some of them tried to break into the cultural center, hang posters and spray paint calling for the release of the hostages.
Free Syrian Army fighters and radical Islamists have in recent days battled for control of rebel-held areas around Syria. Azaz, in the Syrian province of Aleppo where the hostages were believed to be held, was overrun Thursday by a group of jihadists.
Activists said Thursday that FSA rebels had agreed to a truce with the jihadists to end battles over the town along the Turkish border.
A group of eleven Lebanese Shiite men were kidnapped in Azaz by Syrian rebels in May 2012. Two of the men have since been released.
A government committee tasked to follow up on the Lebanese held in Syria met to discuss recent developments in the case. The committee confirmed that the nine pilgrims were safe and out of Azaz, the Syrian town where they were originally held.
“The kidnapped are in good health and they have been moved out of Azaz into a safe area,” caretaker Labor Minister Salim Jreissati told reporters after the meeting.
Jreissati said that the men remain in Syrian territory contrary to some relatives who claimed the kidnapped were transferred to Turkey.
Although Jreissati said there was no additional information with regards to the case, he said negotiations have intensified with the kidnappers in the last few hours.
“The military developments did not affect the course of the negotiations ... which could succeed in some practical steps,” he said.
The minister also condemned any attacks on Turkish citizens and interests referring to the relatives’ protests, saying: “We are in contact with the families and they recognize the difficulties in this case.”
At the protest Downtown, 12-year-old Ahmad Zogheib, whose father is among the hostages, said that the family has been going through rough times in the absence of his dad.
“I have to watch my mother working day and night to provide us a living while my dad is being held away for reasons we do not understand,” he said.
At the main entrance of the complex, the families gathered as their spokesperson, Hayat Awali, was threatening further action and protests against Turkish interests.
“We blame the Turkish state for any harm that can happen to the hostages,” she said.
She also slammed the state for its failure to follow up on the case of the hostages.
Saleh said Awad Ibrahim, one of the two released Lebanese, maintains contact with one of the guards among the kidnappers and that the guard had reassured Ibrahim the abductees were away from where the fighting was occurring in Azaz.
"We received reassurances from General Security chief Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim as well but are concerned that the battles might spread across Azaz,” Saleh said.
However, he added that “the Turks will be keen over the safety of the hostages.”
“They have two Turkish nationals kidnapped in Lebanon and a lot of Turks in Lebanon. They would not risk the safety of the hostages I guess,” he said.
Relatives of the hostages have blamed Turkey for the abduction of the pilgrims, arguing that Ankara can use its ties with the Syrian opposition to push for their release.
The relatives were implicated in the abduction of two Turkish Airlines pilots in August.
The two Turkish nationals were kidnapped on the airport road in Beirut minutes after arriving in the country.
Three of the Azaz relatives have been detained in the case of the Turkish pilots and there are arrest warrants against ten others.
An unknown group claimed responsibility for the abduction, demanding a swap for the kidnapped Shiite pilgrims.
Saleh said the families are expected to escalate their protests against Turkish interests in Lebanon as on past occasions.
“Every time we get false promises and we cannot take it anymore,” he said.
Meanwhile, Sheikh Abbas Zogheib, who was tasked by the Higher Shiite Council to follow up on the case of the Lebanese in Syria, said the relatives filed a lawsuit against the Turkish government at the European Court of Human Rights.
"Today, we filed a lawsuit against the Turkish government at the European Court of Human Rights and I am certain that the nine Lebanese are in a [location] under the jurisdiction of the Turkish state and they are fine," Zogheib told the National News Agency.