BEIRUT: Hopes had risen over the past few weeks that the nine remaining Lebanese hostages held by Syrian rebels would soon be freed, but negotiators say the assassination of intelligence chief Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hasan has thwarted the expected release of the captives.
“The circumstances that struck the country last week delayed the release of the pilgrims, but we are still maintaining the necessary contacts in this regard,” Interior Minister Marwan Charbel told The Daily Star.
Charbel said the release of the captives was expected to happen prior to Eid al-Adha, but Hasan’s killing, which came as a major shock to everyone, had deferred their release.
The minister, however, rejected reports that the negotiations are stalled.
“Maybe Hasan’s killing delayed the case a little bit, but we promise to intensify efforts to free the pilgrims once the situation is more settled,” the minister said.
Lebanon was subject to a major security shock last week when a car bomb targeting Hasan exploded in the residential east Beirut neighborhood of Ashrafieh.
“After last week’s explosion, the kidnappers told me they can no longer release the captives prior to Eid al-Adha as they had promised,” said a Muslim preacher whose religious organization has been involved in negotiations to secure their release.
Sheikh Bilal Dikmak, head of Iqraa Society, told The Daily Star the kidnappers said that they now need “to reshuffle their papers and do what their conscience tells them.”
“They haven’t said we should lose hope about freeing the captives, they just said we will have to find a different arrangement now,” Dikmak said.
Ali Akil Khalil, ambassador for the International Organization for Human Rights, said earlier this month that a group of four captives would be freed prior to Eid al-Adha this week, while the remaining five would be freed during the holiday.
Khalil said that he had a four minute phone call with one of the hostages, Abbas Shoeib, during which the captive told him the hostages were fine and in good health.
“I was getting ready to head to Turkey over the weekend, but Hasan’s assassination changed everything,” Khalil told The Daily Star.
Khalil said a mediator in the negotiations, called Abu Mohammad, contacted him following the general’s assassination and told him “there is no need for you to come now.”
The activist added he is arranging a meeting with the kidnappers after Eid al-Adha: “I have almost agreed with Abu Mohammad that I will head to Turkey after Adha to resume talks about a breakthrough in the crisis.”
Separately, Sheikh Abbas Zogheib, tasked by the Higher Shiite Council with following up on the hostages, said reports the negotiations over releasing the captives have stopped because of Hasan’s killing were “inaccurate.”
Zogheib told the National News Agency Tuesday that “Hasan’s martyrdom should be a motive to resolve this file, as the slain martyr was always seeking to end this case and get the hostages back home.”
Eleven Lebanese were kidnapped in the northern Syrian province of Aleppo shortly after crossing from Turkey on May 22. They were on their way back to Lebanon from Iran, where they had been on a pilgrimage.
Negotiations have resulted in the freeing of two of the kidnapped: Hussein Ali Omar, who was freed in late August, and Awad Ibrahim, who was freed in late September.
The kidnappers said they released the two hostages following mediation by the Committee of Muslim Scholars in Lebanon. However, the committee now says it has no new breakthrough in the case.
“There is nothing new from our side ... The kidnappers promised to release two of the pilgrims in response to our call, and they kept their promise. Of course, we are still trying to do something for the remaining nine hostages but we haven’t had anything new from the kidnappers in a while,” Sheikh Salem Rafei, deputy head of the committee, told The Daily Star.