BEIRUT: Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Wednesday that the issue of the Lebanese pilgrims held hostage in Syria was not his country’s “main problem” given the ongoing regional unrest.
For his part, after meeting with his Turkish counterpart, Prime Minister Najib Mikati urged Turkey to increase its pressure on the hostages’ captors, saying the Lebanese people believe Turkey is capable of helping to obtain their release.
Nine of the 11 Lebanese pilgrims are still being held by Syrian rebels despite months of talks between Lebanese officials and the group holding them.
The pilgrims were abducted last May, and two of the hostages were released last year and returned to Beirut via Turkey.
Speaking during a joint news conference at the Turkish presidential palace in Ankara, Mikati said his talks with Erdogan on the fate of the remaining hostages were positive.
“We spoke about a very important issue to us ... the kidnapped Lebanese,” Mikati said, adding that he asked for Turkey to “exert pressure on the abductors” to release them.
According to several Turkish media reports, Mikati’s convoy was late to the presidential palace and an official delegation and ceremonial band who were awaiting his arrival were forced to return to the palace in the face of cold weather.
“During my meeting with Prime Minister Erdogan, I conveyed to him my opinion that if Turkey increases its pressure on the captors of the Lebanese, the hostages would be liberated,” Mikati said.
Erdogan told reporters he had conveyed to Mikati that “the issue is sensitive and we are exerting efforts with our concerned brothers and attempting to communicate to secure the release of the Lebanese.”
Neither official would be drawn on the details of their talks, but after repeated questions Erdogan said the issue “is not our main problem; we have at least 200,000 Syrian refugees in Turkish territory and our primary problem today is with the Syrian regime.”
“The Syrian regime’s shelling of our territories has killed five Turkish civilians, and I believe that the proper question to ask today is who is sponsoring this regime and keeping it in power in Syria,” he said.
“It is true that we have good relations with the Syrian people and the opposition, and that is why in our talks with the opposition groups we ask them to show the same sympathy that all of you [Lebanese] are showing, so that the kidnapped pilgrims can be reunited with their families,” the prime minister added.
Mikati was accompanied on his one-day official visit by a delegation including Interior Minister Marwan Charbel, Public Works and Transport Minister Ghazi Aridi and Economy Minister Nicolas Nahhas.
Erdogan rejected claims that Turkey was providing weapons to the Syrian opposition, and praised the Lebanese government’s policy of disassociation from the conflict in Syria.
“Peace and stability in Lebanon is very important for Turkey, and as I mentioned to Prime Minister Mikati I want to stress that we support Lebanon’s policies toward Syria, because everyone in Lebanon needs this peace,” he said.
Erdogan also said that Turkey helped end Syria’s occupation of Lebanon in 2005. “Lebanon suffered a lot at the hands of this Syrian regime and we should not forget the occupation of Lebanon and how Turkey played an important role in the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanese territories.”
Mikati said he hoped the next few weeks would yield positive results for the hostages, and said the two countries are facing similar challenges with the influx of refugees from Syria.