BEIRUT: Senior Lebanese officials traveled to Qatar Monday to seek assistance in helping free the remaining Lebanese hostages in Syria after mounting pressure from the families of the kidnapped pilgrims.
The visit to the Gulf country came hours after Turkish officials expressed their surprise over the accusations made against Turkey that it was responsible for the return of the Lebanese pilgrims captured by Syrian rebels while returning from Iran last year.
Sources from General Security told The Daily Star that Interior Minister Marwan Charbel and General Security chief Brig. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim’s visit to Qatar was expected to achieve positive results due to Qatar’s political and financial influence within the Syrian opposition.
“The visit to Qatar comes after Charbel’s telephone conversations with Qatari officials to follow up on the case of the kidnapped pilgrims,” the source said.
Charbel and Ibrahim, who have been tasked with overseeing negotiations between the Syrian rebels and Lebanon, met separately with President Michel Sleiman earlier Monday before traveling to Qatar.
Families of the hostages in Syria have increased their pressure on Lebanese officials and Turkey in recent weeks but a senior Turkish official said that his country was not involved and could not provide assistance at this time.
In remarks to a local newspaper Monday, Turkish President Abdullah Gul’s senior adviser Arshad Hurmuzlu said that the case of the pilgrims was not a Turkish-Lebanese issue.
“It is wrong to address the hostages’ case as a Turkish-Lebanese affair when it is only a Lebanese matter and should be addressed in this manner,” Hurmuzlu said.
“The Lebanese [hostages] are not being held by the Turks and the matter isn’t between the two states,” he said.
Relatives of the hostages and Sheikh Abbas Zogheib, tasked by the Higher Shiite Council to follow up on the case, hold Ankara responsible for the release of the pilgrims due to the influential role Turkey is playing in the Syrian crisis.
Families of the remaining hostages threatened to take escalatory measures and target all Turkish interests including Ankara’s peacekeeping troops serving in UNIFIL. During a demonstration earlier this month, families of the hostages forced Turkish Airlines’s offices in Beirut to close for a day. In response, the Turkish government issued a travel advisory for Lebanon and the Internal Security Forces have stepped up security around all Turkish interests.
Hurmuzlu said that accusations of his country’s involvement in the case are due to Ankara’s ties with the Free Syrian Army. He also voiced understanding for the reactions of the families who had raised expectations from Turkey for humanitarian reasons.
Touching on the mediation efforts by Turkey, Iran and Qatar that recently secured the exchange of prisoners between the Syrian government and rebels, Hurmuzlu said that his country was working to help resolve the case of the Lebanese who have been held in Syria for over seven months.
However, Hurmuzlu said the case of the Lebanese kidnapped in Syria was one of many other similar cases that have targeted foreigners: “If there is any chance of helping in ensuring a happy ending to this case, we will not spare any efforts ... However, our capacities are limited.”