BEIRUT: Hopes for an early release of the 11 Lebanese Shiite pilgrims kidnapped by rebels in Syria last week were dashed Sunday as captors were reported to have made demands for their freedom, including the release of anti-regime activists by the government.
Also rebel allegations, quickly denied by Hezbollah, that three of the hostages are members of the party, are bound to further complicate efforts aimed at securing their release.
These developments came amid a deluge of speculation and unconfirmed reports concerning the fate of the 11 Lebanese, who were kidnapped last week by rebels in the northern Syrian province of Aleppo while returning from a pilgrimage to Iran.
“The 11 Lebanese are still held by a group of rebels who insist they will release them only in exchange for activists held by regime forces,” sources close to Syrian rebels told The Daily Star Sunday. “The rebels are now holding the hostages in different locations, not all in one location.”
“Other complicating factors that are pushing the captors into a harder line are: regime forces have been launching a fierce bombardment campaign in the area for the past 48 hours and the Houla massacre,” the sources added.
Therefore, the sources said they did not expect a swift end to this saga.
According to the sources, three of the hostages are believed to be members of Hezbollah.
However, these allegations were swiftly denied by Hezbollah.
“Hezbollah denies that a nephew of Secretary General Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah or any of his relatives are among the kidnapped Lebanese,” said a statement released by the resistance party’s media office.
Lebanese officials said contacts are ongoing in an effort to secure the 11 hostages. The men should have been released Friday, according to Turkish officials, but last-minute hurdles hindered their release.
Lebanese officials did not say what caused the delay. But they appear optimistic the ordeal will soon end.
Health Minister Ali Hassan Khalil told reporters at Beirut airport Sunday that he felt assured that the hostages were safe.
Hezbollah’s Administrative Reform Minister Mohammad Fneish expressed hope that the ongoing efforts to secure the release of the Lebanese hostages would reach a happy end.
Hezbollah MP Ali Ammar said the party was not directly involved in negotiations to secure the release of the hostages. He added that the mediation was being conducted by the Lebanese state.
Meanwhile, Jihad Makdessi, a spokesman for the Syrian Foreign Ministry, condemned the kidnapping of the pilgrims, saying that his government would make efforts to secure their release.
“We will spare no efforts to secure the safe return of the kidnapped to their homes,” Makdessi told a news conference in Damascus. “We ask the parties that are helping [secure the hostages’ release] where did they reach with this matter?”
A spokesman for the Turkish Foreign Ministry said the Lebanese hostages are in good health and are in an area close to the Turkish border. He denied earlier reports that the hostages had reached Turkey.
Turkey’s government spokesman Saljouk Onal said Ankara was holding consultations with the Lebanese government over the case.
“The situation in Syria is unstable. There are several kidnappings. We are doing our best to resolve the problem of the kidnapped Lebanese,” Onal said in an interview with Al-Jadeed TV.
He added that Turkey does not know where the hostages are being held and is trying to locate them. “We are trying to contact all the parties who might be concerned with this issue.”
Meanwhile, the head of the opposition Syrian National Council, Burhan Ghalioun, said Sunday said the hostages are still in Syria, not Turkey. “I believe that they are still in Syria,” Ghalioun told a news conference in Istanbul.
“We spoke with some parties who had contacts with the group [of captors] and we offered our assistance to have them freed,” said the outgoing leader of the SNC.
In an interview with LBCI, Ghalioun said the Lebanese were not abducted on religious grounds.
“Religion has nothing to do with the abduction,” Ghalioun said.
Last Friday, Lebanese officials were told by Turkish officials that the hostages had been freed and had reached Turkey.
But Saturday a Turkish diplomatic source said the pilgrims were not in the country after all, adding to growing confusion as to their whereabouts.
“These people are not on Turkish territory. I think there has been some confusion,” the source told AFP on condition of anonymity.
The state-run National News Agency reported Friday the release of the pilgrims, saying that Prime Minister Najib Mikati received a call from Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who assured him they were “safe and on their way to Beirut.” A private plane owned by former Prime Minister Saad Hariri was reported to have landed in Turkey to fly the pilgrims home.
But Saturday Mikati said in a statement he was postponing a visit to Turkey following information indicating that contacts and efforts to free the Lebanese still continue.
“It was decided that I visit Turkey today to express my thanks following the assumption that the Lebanese citizens had been freed,” Mikati said. “But since this [release] has been delayed, I decided to postpone the visit,” he said, adding the decision was taken in coordination with Turkish officials.
No one has claimed responsibility for the abductions and Syria’s armed opposition, the Free Syrian Army, has denied any involvement.
Some of the Lebanese women briefly detained reported that their abductors were members of the Free Syrian Army.