TRIPOLI, Lebanon: Sheikh Salem Rafei, deputy head of the Committee of Muslim Scholars, voiced optimism Friday that the 10 Lebanese hostages held by Syrian rebels would soon be released, and indicated that Turkey has the ability to influence the kidnappers.
"Efforts are still under way to secure the release the 10 pilgrims. The Syrian religious figures in Turkey are trying to remove obstacles hindering their release, and we will hopefully witness a breakthrough in the matter. However, we cannot determine a specific date for that to happen," Rafei, a preacher negotiating the hostages' release, told The Daily Star.
Earlier this week, Rafei visited Turkey and attended a meeting with Syrian religious figures in the Turkish city of Gaziantep on the border with Syria. The religious figures are in contact with the Free Syrian Army, the rebel group that abducted the Lebanese.
"I also met the abductors, and sensed that they want to release the hostages," Rafei said.
Asked why his committee of Muslim scholars, not the Lebanese Cabinet, is negotiating the release of the abductees, Rafei said, "There is no doubt that the Cabinet is playing a diplomatic role, but luckily, the kidnappers appreciated the efforts of the Muslim scholars, especially as there is a similar body in Syria."
Rafei pointed out that he called Prime Minister Najib Mikati and Interior Minister Marwan Charbel to brief them on the outcome of negotiations.
"We hope the Lebanese authorities will be able to secure the release of the abducted Turkish nationals in Lebanon,” Rafei said in reference to two Turkish nationals kidnapped in Lebanon.
He added that the committee went to Turkey to thank the captors for responding to its call to free Hussein Omar and try to persuade them to release the other abductees.
Omar, the 11th captive, was released late last month by the rebels, who said that their move came in response to a request by the Committee of Muslim Scholars.
The hostages were kidnapped in the Aleppo district of Azaz on May 22, shortly after crossing into Syria from Turkey. They were on their way back to Lebanon following a pilgrimage to Shiite holy sites in Iran.
"When we went to Turkey, we had not been promised that the other abductees would be released. Of course, we hoped they would be, but it seems things need a bit more time," Rafei explained.
"Regional interventions delayed the release of the kidnapped pilgrims," said Rafei, pointing out that "the Turkish authorities also have an interest in the case now, especially since they want their two nationals kidnapped in Lebanon to be freed."
The Turkish government has said that its efforts to negotiate the release of the Lebanese in Syria are unrelated to the issue of the abducted Turks in Lebanon.
In August, a group calling itself Saraya al-Mukhtar al-Thaqafi kidnapped a Turkish citizen in a bid to pressure Ankara to secure the release of the Lebanese pilgrims. Another Turkish citizen was snatched by the Lebanese Meqdad clan, also in August, to pressure Turkey to help secure the release of kinsman Hassan Meqdad, who was kidnapped by Syrian rebels in Damascus.
Meanwhile, the Turkish hostage and four Syrians held by the Meqdad clan went missing after Lebanese Army forces raided the area where they had been held and arrested a number of people, the spokesman of the clan said Friday.
According to Rafei, the captors kidnapped the Lebanese pilgrims to pressure the Hezbollah-led March 8 team and supporters of the Syrian regime in Lebanon.
"The captors wanted this section of the Lebanese [populace] to feel their pain, hear the scream of the Syrian rebels and stop supporting Bashar Assad's regime in Syria," said Rafei.
As for the call by the Committee of Muslim Scholars to the kidnappers position on the matter, Rafei said, "Our message to Hezbollah is that we strive to enhance co-existence among all the Lebanese and support Shiites in the country; however, we reject serving regional agendas at the country's expense."
"When we addressed the kidnappers to release the Lebanese, we wanted to say that the Muslim scholars don't act on a sectarian basis; they care for all the Lebanese," he added.
Mohammad Nour, the spokesman of the captors, said earlier that his group would release the hostages only if Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah apologizes for his support of the Syrian regime. He has since called on Hezbollah to “specify its stance regarding the Syrian people and revolution."
In an interview with Al-Mayadeen television station Monday, Nasrallah addressed the kidnappers of the Lebanese, urging them to set the remaining men free, and stressing that keeping them in captivity will not change Hezbollah’s political position on Syria.
"If you are freedom seekers, [know that] these people are innocent and that you should set them free,” he said.