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New obstacles emerge in case of kidnapped

Relatives of the kidnapped Lebanese pilgrims held in Syria rally outside the Interior Ministry in Beirut on Friday, Dec. 7, 2012. (The Daily Star/Mohammad Azakir)

TRIPOLI, Lebanon: New obstacles have emerged and delayed the release of the nine remaining Lebanese pilgrims who were kidnapped last year in Syria, sources close to the Islamist captors told The Daily Star Friday.

While negotiations to free the pilgrims had reached their final stage, new undisclosed obstacles have broken an agreement between Gulf countries and the Syrian opposition.

“The recent contacts between Qatari officials and the Syrian opposition made progress, but a last-minute misunderstanding has delayed the release of the pilgrims,” a Syrian opposition source said.

The source, who declined to be identified, said the pilgrims, who were kidnapped last May, were the victims of the ongoing disputes between Syrian and Lebanese groups who have conflicting views of the Syrian regime:

“Since the kidnapping last year, the captors of the Lebanese pilgrims are paying the price of the endless battles between Lebanon and Syria.”

For his part, the secretary-general of the Future Movement, Ahmad Hariri, also ruled out the release of the pilgrims in the near future. “The captors ... might be the same people behind the kidnapping of the Iranians,” Hariri said.

The 48 kidnapped Iranians, who the Syrian opposition accused of aiding the Syrian regime and being members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, were released in a prisoner swap for more than 2,100 Syrian opposition prisoners and a number of Turkish nationals.

Of the 11 Lebanese Shiite pilgrims captured in May, two were released, in August and September of last year.

Meanwhile, the Islam Brigade, a Syrian opposition group that captured the pilgrims from the Azaz Northern Brigade, were the target of a cyberattack earlier this week, sources close to the Islamist faction said.

Sheikh Ibrahim Zoghbi, an influential Salafist preacher from Aleppo who heads the Islam Brigade, reiterated that his group was committed to releasing the pilgrims for humanitarian reasons.

“We believe that the kidnapping of the pilgrims hurt the image of the Syrian revolution and its people,” Zoghbi told The Daily Star.

He added that someone had hacked his email account and issued a statement in his name saying the pilgrims would be released next week.

“Those who are trying to create problems among the Syrian opposition have failed and they will [continue to] fail because we are committed to ending the case of the Lebanese pilgrims,” he said.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 16, 2013, on page 2.

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