BEIRUT: The Turkish Embassy has asked its citizens to refrain from traveling to Lebanon, Turkish media reported Monday, a day after the relatives of nine Lebanese pilgrims who were kidnapped in Syria warned Ankara to do more to secure the release of their loved ones.
Also Monday, Lebanese ministers worked to allay the fears of the relatives and urged Turkey to do more to help ensure the hostages’ release.
According to the Anadolu News Agency Monday, the Turkish Embassy urged Turkish nationals not to travel to Lebanon and for those in the Arab country to take precautionary steps.
The travel advisory comes after the families of the nine remaining Lebanese pilgrims held in Syria protested Sunday outside the embassy’s headquarters in Rabieh, saying they would exert “incremental pressure on Turkish interests in Lebanon starting next year.”
Eleven Lebanese men were kidnapped in Syria’s Aleppo district on May 22, shortly after crossing into Syria from Turkey. They were on their way back to Lebanon after a pilgrimage to Shiite holy sites in Iran.
Only two of the 11, Hussein Omar and Awad Ibrahim, have been released so far.
Turkey says it is continuing to work toward the release of the remaining hostages.
The families also asked President Michel Sleiman to contact former Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Future Movement MP Oqab Saqr to follow up on negotiations with regard to the kidnapped.
Saqr has said that he was negotiating with the kidnappers for the release the captives and claimed that the Syrian rebels want to exchange the Lebanese with Syrian “prisoners of conscience.”
During a news conference at the Interior Ministry’s headquarter in Beirut Monday, four ministers of the government’s follow-up committee on the case of the missing pilgrims met with the relatives, who voiced frustration over the delay in the release of their loved ones.
During the televised conference, Labor Minister Salim Jreissati asked Turkey to exert more efforts and help end the case of the nine pilgrims.
“The committee asks the Turkish authorities to use all available means to secure the release of our kidnapped relatives given that this is out of the control of the Syrian state,” Jreissati said.
He added that the Lebanese government would only negotiate with its Turkish counterpart without mediators.
“Just like we worked with the Turkish authorities to release the two Turks in Lebanon, what is required is for Turkey to do the same as a state,” the minister said.
Two Turkish nationals were kidnapped in August over the abduction of a Lebanese man in Syria and the case of the 11 pilgrims. The Army was able to release one of the abductees while the other was released without ransom.
Meanwhile, Justice Minister Shakib Qortbawi, one of the four government officials, voiced assurances that Lebanon has no Syrian prisoners of conscience.
"There are no prisoners of conscience and that kind of talk is unacceptable and should not be disseminated in the media,” he said, adding that Syrian detainees in Lebanon were held for judicial reasons.
“Every person is free to give their opinion and have a certain belief in Lebanon,” Qortbawi added.
Interior Minister Marwan Charbel, for his part, said Turkish officials have attributed the delay in the release of the nine men to political reasons.
“The issue has been delayed and we don’t know the reason behind that. They [Turkish officials] say it is for political reasons or some complications,” he said.
Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour emphasized the strong ties between Lebanon and Turkey, saying the latter could influence the Syrian opposition to release the Lebanese hostages.
“Regardless of the reasons that have prevented the release of the hostages, we still rely heavily on Turkey in this matter due to its ties with the Syrian opposition on the ground,” he said.
“Turkey can influence them and it is continuing with its efforts,” Mansour added.