BEIRUT: President Michel Sleiman Tuesday told a delegation from the families of 11 Lebanese hostages in Syria that their release was imminent. Meanwhile, the families of the 11 Lebanese pilgrims kidnapped by Syrian rebels more than two months ago gave Sleiman 48 hours to secure the release of their loved ones before they resort to escalatory moves.
“President Sleiman told the delegation that he was pursuing contacts on the case of Lebanese hostages with the Turks and Qataris in order to secure their release,” a source at Baabda Palace told The Daily Star.
“The president also conveyed assurances to the delegation that the hostages are in good health and that their case will come to a happy end soon,” the source said. He added that Sleiman had discussed the hostage crisis during his recent visits to Turkey and Qatar.
Sleiman, however, did not give an exact date as to when the hostages’ release could take place.
The delegation of the hostages’ families that met Sleiman was headed by Sheikh Abbas Zgheib, who was tasked by the Higher Shiite Council to negotiate in the issue of the 11 Lebanese held in Syria.
Hayat Awali, the spokeswoman for the families of the kidnapped pilgrims, said Sleiman relayed to the delegation “important information” signaling that a solution for their ordeal was imminent.
“The president told the delegation that Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim [chief of General Security] was following up the hostage issue with the concerned parties,” Awali told The Daily Star.
Awali, who was one of the Shiite women along with elderly men set free by the kidnappers after the abduction took place on May 22, said that the families of the hostages gave Sleiman 48 hours before they will resort to escalatory moves. She declined to say what these escalatory moves were.
The hostage issue has caused tension after relatives of the kidnapped Lebanese blocked roads in Beirut’s southern suburbs and burned tires on the Beirut airport road to press for government action toward securing their loved ones’ freedom.
Earlier Tuesday, the hostages’ families staged a symbolic sit-in on the road to the Presidential Palace in Baabda to protest the government’s failure to take action to secure the release of their loved ones. The protest coincided with a Cabinet session chaired by Sleiman at Baabda Palace.
Around a dozen men and women gathered at a tent erected some 4 km from Baabda Palace in a bid to pressure the Cabinet to double its efforts to secure the hostages’ release.
They carried placards saying: “Release the innocent kidnapped,” “Are the kidnapped foreigners or Lebanese?” and “Where are the kidnapped, the government of Lebanon?” They also called on Arab states to secure the release of the Lebanese hostages.
Before meeting with Sleiman, Maj. Gen. Wadieh Ghafri, commander of the presidential guards, met with the families, urging them not to block the road to the palace.
Speaking to reporters before the meeting with Sleiman, Zgheib lamented that the case of the Lebanese hostages was not on the agenda of the Cabinet meeting. He expressed regret because the government was not making efforts to resolve the hostages’ crisis.
“We came with the families to negotiate and to put our hands in [government officials’] hands. We hope we will get attention from the officials, particularly the president, in order to achieve justice and secure the release of the 11 Lebanese in Syria,” Zgheib said.
He added that the case of the Lebanese hostages deserved to be given all kinds of efforts. “Our patience has run out and all promises [to release them] were ink on paper. Efforts [to free the hostages] were not successful,” Zgheib said.
The pilgrims, all Shiites, were kidnapped on May 22 after crossing into Syria from Turkey. They were on their way back to Lebanon following a pilgrimage to Iran.
A previously unknown group calling itself “Syrian Rebels in Aleppo” claimed responsibility for the abduction, saying five of the hostages were members of Hezbollah. Hezbollah and their families deny the claim.
The group demanded that Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah apologize for comments he had made in support of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Nasrallah, a staunch ally of Assad, has refused to apologize, saying the abduction would not change Hezbollah’s stance on the events in Syria.
One of the 11 Lebanese hostages said Monday that their release hinged mainly on an apology from Nasrallah for the Syrian people over his support for the Assad regime. In an interview with the Elnashra website, Abbas Shueib said that their abductors were not aware of the negotiations set to release them.
“We have learned that Jamaa al-Thuwar [revolutionary group] and the Free [Syrian] Army have demanded an apology from Hezbollah secretary-general Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah, but he has refused to apologize. We don’t know the reason,” Shueib told Elnashra by phone.
One of the kidnappers of the Lebanese who introduced himself as “Abu Ibrahim” told Lebanese media outlets that the hostages were in good health and they were in the town of Azaz near the Turkish border with Syria.