BEIRUT: After more than four months in captivity in war-torn Syria, Awad Ibrahim returned to Beirut Wednesday, becoming the second of 11 Shiite pilgrims freed following months of mediations and pressure from Lebanese and Turkish officials.
Fireworks and jubilant crowds welcomed Ibrahim as his convoy arrived to Beirut’s southern suburbs.
Syrian rebels abducted Ibrahim, 47, and 10 other Lebanese outside Aleppo while returning from a pilgrimage in Iran in May.
His captors demanded that Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah apologize to the Syrian people for his party’s support for Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Upon arriving to Rafik Hariri International Airport Wednesday evening onboard a commercial Turkish Airlines jet, Ibrahim’s friends and relatives carried him on their shoulders into the airport’s official reception hall where he was welcomed by his family and politicians.
“I thank all the media outlets that covered our cause in the past four months, and I specifically thank former Prime Minister Saad Hariri and the Committee of Muslim Scholars who played an important role in my release,” Ibrahim said in his first comments to reporters after arriving in Lebanon.
“I hope all the other pilgrims will also be released today before tomorrow,”
Hariri later telephoned Ibrahim at home to congratulate him on his return to Beirut and also expressed hope all the pilgrims would be brought home soon.
Interior Minister Marwan Charbel and other political figures welcomed Ibrahim at the airport. “Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who has been helping us to release all the kidnapped, ... I want to thank Hariri because he wants to see Lebanon stable once again,” Charbel told reporters.
Ibrahim’s journey to Beirut started Tuesday morning, when his captors drove him from the town of Azaz, leaving him at the nearby Turkish border crossing Kilis. From there, Turkish intelligence personnel transferred him to Gaziantep where he traveled to Turkey’s capital Ankara.
After spending 24 hours in Ankara, Ibrahim traveled to Istanbul and then to Beirut accompanied by two Lebanese Interior Ministry officials.
Siham Ibrahim, Awad’s wife, and their three children also greeted him at the airport. Before heading to the airport, Siham told The Daily Star the family was overjoyed.
“Our joy cannot be described, it took so long, we didn’t know he would stay there for four months. But thank God he is here and safe today,” Siham said.
“But my joy won’t be fulfilled unless the remaining nine hostages return home, too,” she added.
Voicing hope that the remaining hostages would also be released, Charbel said all of the hostage pilgrims in Syria are innocent.
“The captors will soon discover that all the pilgrims are innocent and they shouldn’t be held for another day in Syria,” Charbel said, adding Turkish authorities are the only source of information for Lebanese officials.
“We all take our information from Turkish authorities and we thank them because they have done more than they are expected to do,” he added.
Speaking after a meeting with Sidon Sheikh Afif Naboulsi, Turkey’s ambassador to Lebanon said the case of the abducted pilgrims is complicated, but Turkey will continue its efforts until all the kidnapped return home.
“From the beginning, Turkey employed all its resources to keep the Lebanese pilgrims safe,” Ambassador Inan Ozyildiz said.
As mediation efforts work to free the remaining Lebanese, Hayat Awali, spokeswoman for the families of the kidnapped pilgrims, said that only Turkish authorities can help secure their release.
“This issue is in the hands of the Turkish authorities, and officials in Turkey are handling the issue in an Ottoman [colonial] mentality,” she said.