BEIRUT: Recent border violence between Turkey and Syria endangers the lives of the nine Lebanese pilgrims still being held captive in Syria, a Shiite preacher following up on their case said Friday.
“The shelling at the Syrian-Turkish border constitutes a serious threat to the lives of the Lebanese kidnapped by the Syrian rebels, especially given that the captors are keeping them at a very delicate location,” Sheikh Abbas Zogheib, tasked by the Higher Shiite Islamic Council to follow up the kidnapped case, told The Daily Star.
Eleven Lebanese pilgrims were kidnapped by Syrian rebels in May on their return from a pilgrimage in Iran. Nine of the pilgrims remain captive after intensive efforts and negotiations succeeded in releasing two of the Lebanese nationals. According to reports, the hostages are being held in Azaz, a northern Syrian town located near the border with Turkey.
Zogheib, who held Turkey responsible for the safety of the remaining pilgrims, called on Ankara to speed up their release.
“It is not enough to release one pilgrim every two months. We urge the Turkish authorities to urge the release of all captives at once given the danger to their lives,” he said.
Turkey was involved in the release of two of the pilgrims and has vowed to do its best to assist in the release of the remaining hostages.
Zogheib said the relatives of the pilgrims still being held in Lebanon’s neighbor were shaken by the reports of shelling between Syria and Turkey.
“The captives’ families were very nervous after the shelling and the retaliation that took place between Turkey and Syria... they already live in constant tension,” he said.
Turkey launched Thursday retaliatory strikes against Syrian targets after five of its nationals were killed by Syrian mortar bombs Wednesday, in the most serious cross-border escalation in the 18-month-old Syria crisis.
Zogheib also warned of the reaction by the captives’ families in the event anything wrong happened to them.
“Tension might result in unneeded reactions if the captives are harmed. We don’t want to reach this stage, and I don’t think the Turkish authorities would want that either, that is why they should ensure the safety of the captives,” said Zogheib.