BEIRUT: Germany will attempt to broker a deal with Syrian rebels to release the nine Lebanese held captive in Syria, a Lebanese source familiar with the case told The Daily Star Sunday.
The source, who requested anonymity, said Germany would mediate between Lebanese authorities and a representative of the rebel group which kidnapped the pilgrims last year.
But the source could not reveal any more details about the mediation efforts due to the sensitivity of the issue.
Al-Mayadeen TV and other local media said Sunday that a “delegation from German intelligence will arrive in Lebanon to follow up on the case.”
However, a high-ranking General Security source denied that a German team had arrived in Beirut, describing the reports as “inaccurate.”
The source added that the head of General Security, Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, usually sought the assistance of other influential countries, especially those that could offer assistance, in the event of a hostage crisis involving Lebanese, such as the bishops who were kidnapped in Syria.
Ibrahim typically makes these requests during his trips abroad or during meetings with foreign officials in Lebanon, the source said.
Sources at Rafik Hariri International Airport could not confirm whether the German group had arrived.
The European country has played an active role in Middle East diplomacy and has mediated several prisoner swap deals between the Israeli government and Hezbollah. As a result, the resistance group has so far appeared to trust German mediation.
In 2008, a German-mediated deal allowed the Israeli government to release five Lebanese prisoners, including one who crossed into the Jewish state in 1979 and killed three Israelis, in exchange for the bodies of two Israeli soldiers killed by Hezbollah members during the 2006 Israeli- Lebanon war.
Earlier in 2004, Israel and Hezbollah agreed to a German-brokered prisoner swap, with Israel releasing 23 Lebanese prisoners and Hezbollah releasing an influential Israeli businessman and the bodies of three Israeli soldiers.
A group of 11 Lebanese Shiite men were kidnapped in Azaz by Syrian rebels in May 2012 on their way from a pilgrimage in Iran. Two of the men have since been released, but the fate of the rest remains unknown.
The families of the nine remaining Shiite pilgrims have protested and held sit-ins outside Turkish establishments, including the Turkish Embassy, in a bid to pressure Ankara to help secure the release of their kin.
The relatives argue that Turkey has the leverage to secure the release of the hostages, given its strong support for the Syrian opposition and the proximity of Azaz to Turkey’s border.
Last month, two Turkish Airlines pilots were kidnapped on their way to a hotel from a Beirut airport.
An unknown group claimed responsibility for the abduction, demanding the release of the nine Lebanese in exchange for the pilots.
Lebanese officials announced last week that the captive pilgrims had been moved to a different area inside Syria after fierce clashes between the Free Syrian Army and radical rebel groups.
Lebanon has tasked Ibrahim with handling the hostage issue. He has said that negotiations to release the pilgrims are inching forward because of regional circumstances.
The rebel group that has claimed responsibility for the kidnapping has made several demands, including an apology from Hezbollah’s leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah for his support of the Syrian regime.
A more recent demand was the release of female detainees held in Syrian prisons. Some 40 female detainees have reportedly been released so far.
Sheikh Abbas Zogheib, who was tasked by the Higher Shiite Council to follow up on the case of the Lebanese in Syria, told The Daily Star that he had no comment on the matter.