BEIRUT: The fate of Turkish citizens kidnapped in Lebanon is tied to the 11 Lebanese pilgrims currently held in Syria, a Turkish official said Wednesday, signaling Ankara’s involvement in negotiations to end a crisis that began three months ago.
“The fate of the Turks kidnapped in Lebanon is de facto linked to the fate of the Lebanese inside Syria,” said a Turkish official told The Daily Star speaking on condition of anonymity.
The official also said that the chief of Turkey’s intelligence service is directly involved in the negotiations to free the Lebanese hostages in Syria.
According to the official, Interior Minister Marwan Charbel and director of General Security Brig. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim were briefed on the current status of the Lebanese kidnapped in Syria by Hakan Fidan, head of the Turkish Intelligence Service.
Charbel visited Turkey over the weekend in search of accurate information regarding the Lebanese pilgrims amid conflicting media reports concerning the fate of the men, many of whom had been reported as killed in airstrikes that targeted the Syrian town of Azaz, which killed at least 40 people.
The strikes on Azaz last week came the same day as a 28-year-old Turkish businessman was kidnapped by the Meqdad clan in Beirut.
The clan said that Turkish businessman Aydin Tufan Tekin was kidnapped in retaliation for the Free Syrian Army’s abduction of their relative – Hasan Meqdad – in Damascus.
Head of the FSA Col. Riad Asaad denied that the FSA had any hostages from the Meqdad family.
“This is one of the regime’s games to create strife and instability in Lebanon,” Asaad said in remarks to the Kuwaiti al-Rai newspaper Tuesday.
Commenting on the FSA’s statement, the Turkish official said that “the ball was now firmly in the Meqdad family’s court after the FSA denied involvement in kidnapping.”
Charbel said Wednesday that he was waiting to speak with Turkish officials to plan a new visit to Turkey.
“Officials in Turkey following up on the case of the 11 Lebanese pilgrims will notify me with the new information they received,” Charbel said, ruling out a visit to Turkey this week.
Charbel briefed Tuesday the Cabinet’s crisis committee, which was formed to follow up on the case of the Lebanese hostages in Syria, on his meetings with Turkish officials in Ankara over the weekend.
The interior minister, who refused to elaborate further on his talks in Turkey, said that he had decided to keep information on the 11 Lebanese pilgrims confidential until officials reached a solution.
Meanwhile, officials at the Turkish Embassy maintained that the issue of the 11 Lebanese pilgrims and the two Turkish citizens kidnapped in Beirut were independent of one another, adding that Turkish officials were working to secure the pilgrims’ release.
“The case of the 11 Lebanese pilgrims is very important to us and we are doing the best we can on this,” said the embassy official who refused to be identified by the media.
The official also said that last week’s strikes on the Syrian town of Azaz had further complicated the case of the Lebanese pilgrims in Syria.
The pilgrims were kidnapped by an armed group in the northern Syrian district of Aleppo in May.
Their kidnappers have said that the abductions were aimed at pressuring the Shiite community in Lebanon to stop supporting the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Social Affairs Minister Wael Abu Faour said Wednesday that the kidnapping of the pilgrims affects not only their relatives, but the entire country.
“This is a national suffering for all Lebanese. It is not a suffering for a certain sect or the families of the kidnapped, this is a Lebanese suffering,” Abu Faour said, speaking on behalf of Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt at a graduation ceremony in Baabda’s Aley.
Abu Faour added that all efforts should be made to ensure the return of the pilgrims to their families.
“What the National Dialogue did was great ... Forming a national delegation to visit all friendly and sisterly countries like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and others will contribute to the release of the kidnapped and will defuse the threat of division among us,” Abu Faour added.
For his part, Beirut MP Imad Hout accused Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime of being behind the kidnapping of Hasan Meqdad in Damascus. Hout added that the series of kidnappings of Syrians in Lebanon was an attempt to force an end to Lebanese support for the Syrian opposition and refugees.
“The regime is behind the kidnapping of Hasan Meqdad in Syria,” Hout said in an interview with Radio Orient.
“It has done this to transfer the chaos into Lebanon after the plot by Michel Samaha was thwarted,” he added.
Former Information Minister Michel Samaha was arrested for carrying explosive devices from Syria into Lebanon and plotting with Syrian security officials to carry out terrorist attacks in the country.