BEIRUT: Efforts to release 11 Lebanese hostages held by Syrian rebels are now restricted to Prime Minister Najib Mikati and Turkish officials, ministerial sources told The Daily Star Tuesday.
The prime minister also said Ankara's role in mediating an end to the crisis is of “special significance.”Speaking at the beginning of a Cabinet session he chaired at the Grand Serail, Mikati said that contacts with the Turkish government to secure the hostages’ release are ongoing “whether directly or through diplomatic channels.
“This is because we believe that Turkish support in this regard is of special significance,” he said.
“What I can say today is that there is a fixed will on the part of all political and spiritual leaders in Lebanon to address this matter calmly and with responsibility,” Mikati said.
The 11 Shiite male pilgrims were kidnapped last week in the northern Syrian province of Aleppo on their way back from a religious pilgrimage in Iran. Women and elderly men were allowed to return to Lebanon shortly after their abduction.
Mikati said that the issue of the pilgrims does not a single sect, “but all the Lebanese, without exception.”
The prime minister added that he will soon visit Turkey to speak with officials about efforts to follow up on the issue.
Prior to the Cabinet session, Administrative Development Minister Mohammad Fneish said that no new information on the case has emerged.
Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesperson Selcuk Unal told The Daily Star that the ministry has no evidence about whether the hostages are alive.
“Despite our continuous efforts to receive information regarding the kidnapped Lebanese in Syria, we have no confirmation of whether the kidnapped are still alive,” he said.
Unal said that Turkey will continue daily efforts to reach out to those who have information about the hostages, but added that this remains difficult.
“Syria has become a highly unstable country and even Turkish citizens are being abducted and sometimes killed in crossfire between the opposition rebels and the regime forces,” Unal said.
He added that “once we have credible information of the transfer of the kidnapped [Lebanese] to Turkey, our borders will be open to them.”
One Syrian opposition figure, who said he had spoken to the kidnappers, told the Associated Press that the hostage-takers decided not to release the men after Syrian forces began attacking rebel areas in Aleppo.
Now, he said, the kidnappers are demanding Syrian authorities release 500 opposition detainees, including Lt. Col. Hussein Harmoush, one of the first officers to defect after the uprising began. Harmoush was later arrested by the regime during a special operation.
The opposition figure spoke on condition of anonymity.
Nabatieh MP Mohammad Raad, who heads Hezbollah’s Loyalty to the Resistance parliamentary bloc, said that his party had not been informed about any conditions the captors may have set in return for the hostages’ release.
“We were not informed about any political condition or demand and the issue of the kidnapped is being addressed with extreme delicacy given its sensitivity,” Raad told reporters after meeting with former President Emile Lahoud.
Raad said it was better to distance the matter of the hostages from the media spotlight, and not to tackle efforts to release them in the press. He said “this is because media outlets circulated several reports which turned out to be totally unfounded.”
Later Tuesday, Raad discussed Turkey’s efforts to mediate the release of hostages with its Ambassador to Lebanon Inan Ozyildiz, who visited him in the Beirut southern suburbs.
Ozyildiz also discussed his country’s efforts during meetings with Mikati and Speaker Nabih Berri.
Syria’s Ambassador to Lebanon, Ali Abdel-Karim Ali, said that coordination was ongoing between Lebanon’s Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour, his Syrian counterpart Walid Moallem and other relevant officials to secure the hostages’ freedom.
“The kidnapping group has revealed its identity, and you [reporters] announced it,” Ali told reporters after meeting Mansour at the Foreign Ministry, referring to reports that the kidnappers were members of the Syrian opposition.
Ali said that given this knowledge and that “the side which influences this group is trying to secure their release ... strands [of information] are clear by now.
“We hope that the picture will be clear and good results are reached,” he added.
The Future Movement bloc of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri condemned the kidnapping again Tuesday.
“The Future bloc clearly says that it cannot accept these practices from any side, especially that [the kidnapping] targets innocent Lebanese civilians,” the bloc said in a statement issued after its weekly meeting at Hariri’s residence.
The statement said the bloc hoped for the safe return of the hostages and called for enhanced unity, which was emerging as Lebanese of various groups rejected the operation. – with AP and additional reporting by Van Meguerditchian