RABIEH: Speaking on behalf of the families of 11 Lebanese pilgrims held in Syria, a sheikh warned Turkey Tuesday that its nationals in Lebanon could face the same fate as the Lebanese hostages.
“If the issue of kidnapped Lebanese is not resolved, the Turks will become our guests just like the Lebanese hostages,” Sheikh Abbas Zogheib said sarcastically during the protest outside the Turkish Embassy in Rabieh, north of Beirut.
The Syrian rebel captors of the Lebanese men have repeatedly insisted that the pilgrims are their "guests," as opposed to hostages.
Zogheib, tasked by the Higher Islamic Shiite Council with following up on the Lebanese hostages’ case, did not set an ultimatum by which time progress would have to be made.
About 60 family members and supporters flanked Zogheib as he spoke to reporters. They had been demonstrating outside the Turkish embassy to protest what they view as lackluster efforts to free their loved ones.
Police had deployed outside the Qatari embassy ahead of an anticipated protest by the families and supporters of the 11 Lebanese pilgrims kidnapped in Syria three months ago.
About 20 anti-riot policemen were seen outside the Qatari embassy in Ain al-Tineh, not far from the residence of Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, before midday.
But the protesters never made it to the Qatari embassy. Photographers and television crews were told that they had changed their minds and decided to rally outside the Turkish embassy.
Police scrambled to tighten security measures around the Turkish embassy, deploying around 120 members of the Internal Security Forces' elite Panthers unit.
Zogheib did not offer an explanation as to why the protesters decided to call off their demonstration outside the Qatari Embassy.
“Qatar is playing an effective role and the families will do what they consider beneficial in terms of resolving the issue,” he said.
Turkey and Qatar have aligned themselves with the Syrian opposition. Both countries have attempted to mediate the hostages’ release, but to no avail.
Later Monday, a two-member delegation representing the hostages' families headed to Turkey to meet with the captors and arrange a rendezvous with their loved ones, said to be held in an area of north Syria called Azaz, near the border with Turkey.
The delegation's decision to go to Turkey and later possibly Syria followed an invitation by Abu Ibrahim, one of the captors, who said that they would be welcome. The delegation was accompanied by an LBCI television crew and human rights activist Ali Akil Khalil.
President Sleiman has said that he is pursuing contacts with the Turks and Qataris in order to secure the hostages' release.
The hostages’ families blocked the Beirut airport highway Monday evening – using cars and motorcycles rather than burning tires – in an effort to pressure the government to secure the captives’ release.
Zogheib warned Monday of escalatory moves by the hostages’ families if their loved ones were not released soon.
“We are doing our best to keep the [hostages’] families patient. But if no results are achieved soon with regard to securing the release of the hostages, the families will resort to escalatory moves,” he said.
The hostages, 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 Shiite holy sites in 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, said the abduction would not change Hezbollah’s stance on the events in Syria.