BEIRUT: Official Turkish reports concerning the death of the head of a Syrian rebel group holding Lebanese pilgrims hostage were called into question Friday when a mediator involved in the case said the man in question was still alive.
“I have received information from the Turkish side that Abu Ibrahim has been killed and that Abu Jasser has replaced him,” Interior Minister Marwan Charbel told a delegation from the Journalists’ Union Friday, adding that he died from wounds sustained during a recent Free Syrian Army strike.
News of Abu Ibrahim’s death surfaced when the FSA allegedly attacked Azaz, where the Lebanese pilgrims are believed to be held.
Charbel said the government is still communicating with Turkish officials in order to resolve the case of the abducted Lebanese.
“We made major progress in efforts to release the remaining kidnapped, but we have to stop bringing up the issue in the media,” he said, adding that former Prime Minister Saad Hariri was making efforts to secure the pilgrims’ release.
Eleven Lebanese men were kidnapped by Syrian rebels on May 2012 in the town of Azaz in rural Aleppo on their way back to Lebanon from a religious pilgrimage in Iran. Two were released last August and September.
But a mediator involved in the case, who spoke to The Daily Star on condition of anonymity, said Abu Ibrahim was still alive.
“He is not dead. He is wounded but he is still alive,” the mediator said, adding that Abu Ibrahim periodically “plays dead” in order to avoid external pressure from Turkey and Lebanon to release the pilgrims.
The source, who described Abu Ibrahim as unreliable, said the rebel chief has yet to outline specific demands for the return of the pilgrims.
“Sometimes Abu Ibrahim says he is holding the Lebanese because he wants money, and at other times he claims it is for sectarian reasons.”
The mediator said the Free Syrian Army had launched an attack to free the pilgrims and that Abu Ibrahim was constantly relocating the Lebanese in Azaz. The pilgrims were in good health, the mediator added.
President Michel Sleiman sought to clarify Friday whether there is a link between a Syrian army defector who is in the custody of Lebanese authorities and the abducted pilgrims.
“[The president] visited General Security chief Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim to attempt to verify media reports that there is a link between Syrian Lt. Mohammad Tlas and the kidnapped Lebanese in Azaz and whether [Tlas] has information about this issue,” said a statement from Baabda Palace.
According to the statement, Sleiman and Ibrahim also discussed how to go about securing the return of the remaining nine pilgrims.
Lebanon’s Military Tribunal sentenced Tlas to two months behind bars earlier this week and ordered his deportation for illegally entering the country.
However, Charbel said Wednesday, the deportation was unlikely. Sleiman added the following day that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights makes stipulations against deporting refugees back to their country.
A source from General Security told The Daily Star that the institution has yet to receive Tlas.
According to a judicial source, if General Security decides not to deport Tlas, it will likely release him and give him a card granting him the right to move around freely.
The source added that in this case, Tlas would be instructed to inform General Security about his whereabouts and would be kept under surveillance.
A ministerial committee following up on the issue of the kidnapped pilgrims held a meeting at the Interior Ministry. The committee is also following up on the case of George Abdallah, a Lebanese under arrest in France since 1984.
Speaking to reporters after the session, Labor Minister Salim Jreissati, who chaired the meeting, said that the committee was making promising efforts in both cases.
He said that Charbel, who was in attendance, informed them about the “practical steps,” he is making in a bid to win the release of the pilgrims.
Jreissati said that it is clear Turkey is interested in resolving the case of the kidnapped pilgrims after Charbel and Prime Minister Najib Mikati flew separately to Turkey.
As for Abdallah’s case, Jreissati said that contacts would be made to determine the real intentions of the French authorities in the case.
A French court ordered the release of Abdallah last month on the condition he would be deported to Lebanon. But France’s interior minister declined to sign the deportation order, twice delaying the decision to release him. The court is holding another session on Feb. 28.
Abdallah was sentenced to life in prison by a French court in 1987 for the 1982 murders of American Lt. Col. Charles Ray and Israeli diplomat Yaakov Bar-Simantov in Paris.