BEIRUT: Competing efforts to secure the release of the 10 Lebanese pilgrims still held in Syria have become a tug-of-war pitting the government against Sunni figures and politicians from the March 14 coalition.
Both sides claim that they are working tirelessly to win the release of the remaining 10 Lebanese pilgrims and are accusing the other of hampering talks with the armed Syrian opposition faction that has been holding the Lebanese in the Syrian town of Azaz.
Ministers tasked by the government to follow up on the case of the pilgrims have held meetings with Turkish officials in Ankara, while Sunni religious figures have held meetings with Syrian opposition officials in Istanbul and other cities in Europe.
“Some of the pilgrims were to be released in the past 48 hours. But some politicians in the country have placed obstacles in the path of negotiations, and now we don’t know when they will be released,” said Bilal Dokmak, a Tripoli-based Salafist sheikh who has been involved in indirect negotiations with the captors.
While welcoming the government’s initiative to negotiate with Turkish officials to free the pilgrims in Syria, Dokmak hinted that Interior Minister Marwan Charbel’s “insistence” to have all the Lebanese freed at once has “complicated the course of negotiations to release some of the kidnapped.”
Dokmak told The Daily Star that during talks in Istanbul earlier this week, an agreement on a framework to gradually release all the Lebanese pilgrims was reached with the Syrian opposition faction.
“We just had a meeting two days ago in Istanbul with the key contact between us and the Syrians to gradually release the pilgrims in groups,” he said.
Eleven Shiite Lebanese men were abducted near Aleppo in May while returning from a pilgrimage in Iran. Hussein Ali Omar, one of the 11 pilgrims, was released in August.
According to the Syrian opposition, Omar was released under a deal reached with a Sunni Committee of Muslim Scholars of Lebanon.
Dokmak said that two individuals are at the forefront of the negotiations with the captors and are working to secure the safe release of the pilgrims: Abu Mohammad, a European-Syrian opposition official and MP Okab Sakr,” Dokmak said. Sakr was not available for comment Tuesday.
Dokmak also said that the initiative launched by Sunni religious leaders to help secure the release of the 10 kidnapped Lebanese was based on “humanitarian grounds and not political whatsoever.”
“We don’t care whether the kidnapped are Sunnis, Shiites or Jews; we wanted to help because this is a humanitarian issue that we are obligated to stand for.”
But the sheikh said the captors are upset by Lebanon’s policy of disassociation from the killing of thousands of people in Syria.
“They are wondering why the death of thousands of Syrians by the Assad regime doesn’t concern the Lebanese like the fate of the 10 Lebanese pilgrims,” Dokmak said.
“Add to that Hezbollah leader [Sayyed] Hasan Nasrallah’s continuous praise for the Assad regime ... All these are not helping in the negotiations.”
But the head of the ministerial committee tasked with resolving the case of the kidnapped Lebanese pilgrims criticized politicians and religious figures who are competing with the government’s efforts to win the release of the captives.
Without naming them, Labor Minister Salim Jreissati called on “certain individuals” to avoid competing with the government.
“We call on all the individuals who would like to make their own initiatives [to release the pilgrims] coordinate with the government and avoid competing with officials who are officially tasked with following up on the issue,” Jreissati said after a meeting of the ministerial committee Tuesday.
“The officials tasked with following up on the issue are Interior Minister Marwan Charbel and director of General Security Brig. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim,” Jreissati added.
Jreissati also said that the committee is continuing its efforts and that there are positive developments.
“But I cannot say anything about when and how many would be released,” he said.
Jreissati called on the Lebanese to only rely on Charbel for “serious results” from the ongoing negotiations to free the Lebanese pilgrims in Syria.