BEIRUT

Lebanon News

Abducted pilgrims not heading home before end of holy month

File - A snapshot taken from LBC television channel shows two of the Lebanese hostages after Al-Jazeera TV aired photos of some of them. (The Daily Star)

BEIRUT: One of the kidnappers holding 11 Lebanese pilgrims in Syria denied Sunday reports that the men would be released before the end of the holy month of Ramadan. Several of the kidnapped blamed Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah and the Lebanese government for delaying their release.

Abu Ibrahim, an opposition leader in the Syrian province of Aleppo holding the men, said, “it is possible that they will be released,” but added that reports on the imminent release of two Lebanese were incorrect.

Speaking to Al-Mayadeen television channel by telephone, Abu Ibrahim reiterated that all the kidnapped pilgrims were in good health, describing them as guests in Syria.

In a statement carried by Al-Jazeera TV on July 18, the kidnappers said they had decided to release two hostages in response to calls by a committee of Muslim scholars in Lebanon.

Two hostages told LBCI television channel by telephone Sunday that the men’s release was delayed as a result of Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah’s refusal to apologize to the Syrian people.

Ali Abbas, one of the pilgrims, added that the Lebanese government is responsible for the delay in their release because it does not know how to negotiate.

The comments of Abbas, speaking on the telephone about his treatment, were also played on Al-Mayadeen TV.

“We haven’t been subjected to any torture,” Abbas said.

“Two others and I were sick and the kidnappers brought a doctor to examine us, and they have since provided us with medicine,” he added.

Ali Tormos, Abbas Hammoud, Hasan Hammoud, Hussein Omar, Jamil Saleh and Hasan Arzouni – all members of the group kidnapped on May 22 while returning from a pilgrimage in Iran – also spoke of their experiences in brief audio clips.

Al-Mayadeen broadcast the footage two days after the New Yorker magazine published an account of one of its reporters’ visit to the kidnapped.

Abu Ibrahim, who was a fruit merchant prior to the Syrian uprising, told The New Yorker journalist that the kidnapping of the Lebanese pilgrims was a way to send a message to the Shiite community to seek their support for the Syrian uprising.

“Through the people we are holding we are sending a message to the Shiite people to support the Syrian people, not the regime,” Abu Ibrahim told The New Yorker.

When asked by Al-Mayadeen about his motivation, Abu Ibrahim said, “We are just sending a message to [the] Lebanese about Hezbollah’s position toward the Syrian revolution and the statements by Hezbollah secretary-general Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah supporting the Syrian regime.”

The New Yorker article revealed the location of the pilgrims for the first time since their kidnapping two months ago. According to The New Yorker, the kidnapped were likely staying in the town of Azaz, located only three kilometers from the Turkish border with Syria.

“We and the [pilgrims] are in an area fully liberated from Syrian regime control,” he said.

The New Yorker reporter, who met three of the hostages – Ali Zagheeb, 44, from the Bekaa, Awad Ibrahim, 46, from Baalbek and Abbas, 29, from south Lebanon – said the encounter took place in the Baath Party headquarters in Azaz. According to The New Yorker, Awad Ibrahim said that he would support the Syrian revolution upon his return to Lebanon.

“As God as my witness and I repeat it three times, I have never seen such a man as this, and this experience has opened my eyes about the revolution in Syria. When I go home I want to help support its revolution,” The New Yorker quoted Awad Ibrahim as saying.

Abu Ibrahim described himself as a civilian and part of the revolution but denied being a member of the Free Syrian Army.

When asked how he was able to support the 11 men in his custody, Abu Ibrahim said he received large financial support from Syrian businessmen abroad.

“Thank God, we are a big group. My group has large financial funding ... Our work in the revolution isn’t just to resist the Syrian regime, but we act as police and work at the civilian, economic and health levels. Syrian businessmen outside and Europe ... have put large quantities of money at their disposal,” he said.

Abu Ibrahim said he had received some 1.3 million euros ($1.6 million) in financial assistance from Qatar, used mostly for food and medicine.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 30, 2012, on page 1.

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