BEIRUT: Prime Minister Najib Mikati announced Wednesday that the government will take “brave steps” to secure the release of the 11 Lebanese hostages kidnapped in Syria before Eid al-Fitr, the celebration that marks the end of Ramadan.
“The Lebanese state, on the part of the president and prime minister, is exerting every effort in the case of the kidnapped Lebanese in Syria we are considering taking courageous steps to ensure their return to their families and their homeland before Eid al-Fitr,” Mikati told Cabinet.
Eid al-Fitr is expected to fall sometime during the fourth week of August.
Interior Minister Marwan Charbel has said the Lebanese government is working behind the scenes to secure the release of the Lebanese hostages kidnapped in Syria three months ago.
Charbel also criticized the hostages' Syrian captors for allegedly not making concrete demands.
“Our problem is that we don’t know the real demands of those who have taken the Lebanese hostage so that we can negotiate,” Charbel said in remarks published Wednesday by the local daily An-Nahar.
“This is why we held and still continue to hold talks with Turkey, which has advised us to keep the issue away from the media – which is what we did,” Charbel added.
A previously unknown group calling itself "Syrian Rebels in Aleppo" claimed to be holding the Lebanese shortly after their abduction in May, saying five of the hostages were members of Hezbollah. Hezbollah and the hostages’ 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.
Charbel pointed to a visit to Turkey he made along with Prime Minister Najib Mikati and Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour in search of a solution and said, “We’re still working within this framework."
Charbel’s remarks came hours after the 11 Lebanese pilgrims lashed out at the Lebanese government, accusing it of neglecting their case.
The hostages spoke late Tuesday evening to an LBCI television crew that traveled to Azaz on the Syria-Turkey border at the invitation of Abu Ibrahim, head of the captors.
Abu Ibrahim has said the kidnappers don’t want a ransom, but has demanded that the pilgrims’ release be negotiated with Zahle MP Oqab Saqr or Brig. Wissam Hasan, the head of Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces Information Branch.
In their late Tuesday television appeals, the hostages insisted that their captors have made no material demands, and that all they ask for is Lebanon’s recognition of the Syrian rebels.
“We demand that the [Lebanese government] recognize the FSA before it negotiates our release,” hostage Ali Abbas told LBCI.
Two of the pilgrims’ relatives, who flew to Turkey with the television crew Tuesday to see what progress has been made in the case, were not able to meet the captives, LBCI said on its website.
The trip came after Abu Ibrahim called on reporters Monday to meet the pilgrims in Azaz. In addition to the LBCI crew, a team from Al-Jadeed TV also flew to Turkey to try to meet the hostages.
Abu Ibrahim did not make any demands.
The Syrian rebels who took the Lebanese men have repeatedly insisted that the pilgrims are their “guests,” as opposed to hostages.
The Shiite hostages were kidnapped after crossing into Syria from Turkey on May 22 while on their way back to Lebanon from a pilgrimage to Iran. Women and elderly men were allowed to leave.
Also Tuesday, a spokesman for the hostages’ families warned that Turkish nationals in Lebanon could face the same fate as the Lebanese hostages if Turkey does not work to resolve the case.
“The Turks said ‘the issue is not in our hands,’ but the source of the phone call [between the kidnapped and their relatives Monday] is Turkey and what the kidnapped said yesterday [Monday] confirms that they are under Turkish control,” Sheikh Abbas Zogheib said Tuesday. “Turkey is responsible, they can’t deny this.”