BEIRUT: The Free Syrian Army will no longer take part in talks on the release of the remaining Lebanese hostages in Syria, a spokesperson for the FSA said Wednesday.
In an interview with a local television channel, Louay Meqdad, who has been accused in media reports of engaging in arms dealing with Zahle MP Oqab Saqr, said Saqr and former Prime Minister Saad Hariri would continue their mediation with the captors of the Lebanese pilgrims alone.
“The Free Syrian Army cannot continue in its mediation efforts to free the nine kidnapped Lebanese because there are individuals who are putting last-minute hurdles to agreements to release the hostages,” said Meqdad.
Meqdad also said that the FSA’s decision was linked to critical reports made by OTV channel on the mediation efforts.
“There is an axis from Tehran to Damascus and Beirut that works to fabricate, lie and murder to accuse others,” he said. “Hezbollah and Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun are inciting strife upon the orders of Bashar Assad.”
Louay called on the pilgrims’ families to put their trust in those involved in mediation to free the hostages. “The families should be able to differentiate between those who are working to release their relatives and those who are launching airstrikes on their relatives with MiG fighter jets,” he said.
Families of the pilgrims being held in Syria vowed to stage nationwide demonstrations in the new year in a bid to pressure the Lebanese and Turkish governments to secure the release of their loved ones.
At least 20 relatives held a sit-in at noon Tuesday on the highway leading to the Baabda Palace, blocking the road at times. Protesters carried Christmas trees and photographs of the pilgrims who were kidnapped while returning from Iran seven months ago.
“This demonstration was an opportunity to congratulate the president on the occasion of Christmas,” said Mansour Hammoud, who read a statement on behalf of the families.
“We had no intention to block the road, but when the police asked the families to protest in a parking lot, we were provoked and the families blocked the road,” Hammoud said.
“We will resume our movement as of Jan. 1, 2013, in all Lebanese regions on all Turkish interests, including Turkish units within the UNIFIL in south Lebanon,” he added.
Human rights activist Ali Akil Khalil said the families of the pilgrims would file a suit against the Turkish government with the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights. “We have evidence of Turkey’s involvement in the kidnapping,” said Khalil.
Earlier this week, the pilgrims’ families also protested in front of the Turkish Embassy in the Metn town of Rabiyeh, warning that they might kidnap Turkish citizens to force the government in Ankara to take action on the kidnapped Lebanese.
In response, Ankara’s embassy warned Turkish citizens against traveling to Lebanon.
President Michel Sleiman criticized the protesters’ call to target Turkish interests and said that efforts were still under way to return the remaining hostages to their families.
“It is unacceptable to target the interests of any country and especially Turkish interests because Turkey did not kidnap the Lebanese pilgrims,” Sleiman told reporters after visiting Maronite Patriarch Cardinal Beshara Rai in Bkirki Tuesday.
The president said the government had tasked a ministerial committee to tackle the issue of the kidnapped Lebanese and officials are still working on the case. “We need to separate the harsh humanitarian conditions the kidnapped are living in and the demonstrations that are being carried out in the country,” he added.
Sleiman also called on Turkish authorities to continue their efforts to secure the speedy release of the kidnapped Lebanese from Syria. “We hope the Turkish government increases pressure on the kidnappers to free the Lebanese hostages as soon as possible.”
Foreign Affairs Minister Adnan Mansour said Wednesday that Turkey was blameless in the case of the Lebanese hostages, adding that Ankara was working to secure their release.
“Turkey has nothing to do with the kidnapping of the Lebanese in Syria and it is exerting efforts [to win] their release,” Mansour told Voice of Lebanon radio station.
He said the reason why the families of the Lebanese hostages were attacking Turkey was because Ankara was a staunch supporter of the Syrian opposition battling the regime of President Bashar Assad.
Two of the original 11, Hussein Omar and Awad Ibrahim, have been released following mediations between Turkish authorities and the captors.