BEIRUT: The head of the captors of 11 Lebanese hostages in Syria said Thursday that four hostages were killed in a Syrian airstrike in the Aleppo district of Azaz on the Syrian-Turkish border, while the rest were in critical condition.
Meanwhile, the Lebanese Meqdad clan announced it would suspend kidnappings, but threatened to kill a Turkish hostage if its abducted relative in Syria was killed.
In a video footage broadcast on Lebanese TV stations Thursday night, Abu Ibrahim, the head of the group holding the 11 Lebanese pilgrims, said: “Four Lebanese were killed. The other seven are in critical condition as a result of the severe bombardment.”
“[Syrian President’s] Bashar Assad’s warplanes bombarded the buildings and medical centers in Azaz,” Abu Ibrahim said. In the video, dated Aug. 15, Abu Ibrahim was shown with bruises on his face as a result of the bombardment that apparently hit the location where the Lebanese hostages were held.
Abu Ibrahim’s statement put an end to conflicting reports of the fate of 11 Lebanese who were abducted in Syria in May. Earlier, several media outlets said the pilgrims were killed in a Syrian army aerial bombardment of Azaz, in the northwest of Syria. Other sources said the 11 were still alive and safe.
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.
The news of the death of four hostages came as the Cabinet decided to form a ministerial committee to resolve the issue of Lebanese hostages in Syria, by gathering information about them and staying in contacts with their families. Headed by Deputy Premier Samir Muoqbel, the committee includes the ministers of foreign affairs, interior and justice.
Speaking to reporters before a Cabinet session at Beiteddine Palace, Prime Minister Najib Mikati called for the formation of an extraordinary government to cope with the spate of kidnappings that engulfed Lebanon Wednesday.
Earlier Thursday, the Meqdad clan threatened to kill a Turkish hostage if its abducted relative in Syria was killed.
“Kidnappings will stop during the next few hours because we already have a great treasure [hostages] to negotiate with,” Maher Meqdad, spokesman for the Medqad clan, told a news conference in Beirut’s southern suburbs.
He said the family has released at least a dozen Syrians after determining that they were not members of the Free Syrian Army, adding that the clan still holds at least 20 Syrians. Most of the kidnappings took place Wednesday following the abduction of Hassan Meqdad by Syrian rebels in Damascus.
Al-Arabiya television channel said that the Free Syrian Army arrested Hezbollah member Hassan Meqdad, who crossed into Syria as part of a 1,500-member group whose members later scattered to Damascus, Aleppo and Homs. Hezbollah has denied Hassan is a party member, as has the Meqdad clan.
However, despite the Meqdad clan’s promise to stop kidnappings, the driver of a Turkish truck and his assistant were kidnapped Thursday night in Choueifat, south of Beirut, security sources said.
Meanwhile former Prime Minister Saad Hariri slammed the spree of kidnappings targeting Syrian nationals in Lebanon, saying that the Syrian regime was exploiting the abductions to fuel divisions here.
“The kidnapping of any person in Lebanon, whether Syrian brothers or else under the pretext of an exchange, use of pressure or threats for the release of a Lebanese hostage in Syria, is rejected by us because mistakes cannot be corrected with similar ones,” Hariri said in a statement released by his office.
“We, at this delicate, sensitive stage in Lebanon’s history and the region, are in dire need of concentrated efforts from all Lebanese, without exception, to do whatever is needed to release the Lebanese kidnapped in Syria and release any Syrian hostage or non-Lebanese who were kidnapped,” he added.
He accused the Syrian government of doing its best to “exploit some of the kidnappings or provoke them in a bid to fuel divisions between Lebanese themselves” after it failed in implementing bombings in the north. He was referring to the recent case in which former Information Minister Michel Samaha, a close ally of the Syrian regime, was charged along with two senior Syrian security officials in a terror plot aimed at destabilizing Lebanon.
For his part, Mikati expressed frustration with the spate of kidnappings, saying that the government was exerting efforts behind-the-scenes to win the release of the Lebanese hostages.
“The issue of counter-kidnapping, threats and braggadocio [via] the media are all things that are not acceptable,” Mikati said. “The situation is extraordinary and difficult and requires an extraordinary government.”
More Syrians were kidnapped in Lebanon Thursday before the Meqdad clan announced it was suspending what it called “military operations,” prompting Gulf countries to begin evacuating their citizens. On Thursday, 11 Syrians were snatched, 10 of them by a group called Al-Mukhtar al-Thaqafi, which demanded the release of the 11 hostages in Syria.
The group warned that it would kidnap Syrian opposition members who support Syrian rebels. However, the group later released five of its captives, saying it was ready to release the other five in exchange for a videotape showing the 11 Lebanese hostages.
In response to security threats, five Gulf states, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain, have urged their citizens to leave Lebanon immediately after the Meqdad clan kidnapped more than 20 Syrians in Beirut and initially threatened to seize more Arab nationals in retaliation for the abduction of Hassan Meqdad.
The Meqdad clan said it would murder the Turkish hostage, Aydin Toufan, if Hassan were killed. “If they kill Hassan Meqdad, the first person we will kill is the Turkish man,” said Maher Meqdad.
Speaking to The Daily Star in Beirut’s southern suburbs, Meqdad also threatened further kidnappings. “We have a slew of targets,” he said, but added that the clan would only kidnap Turkish nationals and Syrians affiliated with the Free Syrian Army.
Meqdad stressed that his clan is “an entity totally independent of Hezbollah” and that it does not take orders from any party.
Security sources also told The Daily Star that Gulf countries – particularly Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE – have warned Lebanon through diplomatic channels that any kidnapping of their citizens on Lebanese soil would be met by stringent measures against Shiites in their own countries. Turkey issued a similar warning, said the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
In light of Wednesday’s random kidnappings, the Progressive Socialist Party of MP Walid Jumblatt issued a warning to the Meqdad family via Hezbollah that it would “react severely” to the kidnapping of any Syrian in Druze areas of Lebanon, and the Future Movement and Salafists made the same warning regarding Sunni areas, the sources said.