ISTANBUL: Nine Lebanese pilgrims who were abducted in Syria last year have been transferred to an Islamist rebel faction in the country, and negotiations to secure their release are ongoing, sources told The Daily Star. Eleven Shiite hostages were kidnapped after crossing from Turkey into Syria last May while returning to Lebanon from a religious pilgrimage to Iran. Two of the hostages were let go in August and September.
A previously unknown figure who called himself Abu Ibrahim, whose real name is Ammar al-Dadikhi, emerged as the leader of the captors, the rebel Azaz Northern Storm Brigade.
But a leader of the rebel Al-Islam Brigade said his group had recently moved against Abu Ibrahim and his men, transporting the hostages to a safe place near the Turkish border.
The leader said that by the time the Al-Islam Brigade took military action against Abu Ibrahim’s group, the Northern Storm Brigade’s membership had diminished from nearly 200 members to less than 20 men.
He added that Abu Ibrahim was wounded in the leg during the fighting and taken to Turkey, where he died at the end of last month in the Ghazi Antab Hospital.
Previous reports of Abu Ibrahim’s demise or injury have been denied by other rebels.
Some parties involved in negotiations have said the Nusra Front now controls the hostages, but more than one leader from the group denied this when contacted by The Daily Star. They said the hostages were safe and in the hands of an Islamist faction and would soon be returned.
Hopes about return have been dashed before, and several sources blame this on the volatile behavior of Abu Ibrahim.
Syrian opposition figures said that before the uprising Abu Ibrahim had worked smuggling tobacco, drugs and alcohol between Syria and Turkey, and was close to the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Upon realizing that Assad’s forces no longer had the power they once did, Abu Ibrahim took up arms, forming the Azaz Northern Storm Brigade and recruiting fighters from the ranks of unemployed men in rural Aleppo, the sources said.
A rebel field commander from northern Aleppo said Abu Ibrahim eventually seized control of much of rural Aleppo, and that by the time the Lebanese pilgrims were kidnapped he had installed his own police force at the Bab al-Hawa border crossing between Syria and Turkey, stamping passports without coordination with the Syrian opposition leadership.
He added that the Free Syrian Army never considered the Azaz Northern Storm Brigade to be part of its ranks, and more than one officer accused him of being a tool of the Syrian regime.
Several sources called Abu Ibrahim ruthless and unpredictable, with one Syrian opposition figure citing an incident in which he summoned a member of the Syrian National Council and beat the man for two days simply because he found his accent annoying.
Another member of the Syrian opposition alleged that Abu Ibrahim had received $1.5 million from a non-Lebanese figure to keep the hostages as long as possible, and assured The Daily Star that the YouTube video released last August in which the leader appeared wounded by a Syrian airstrike was a publicity stunt.
The source added that Future Movement MP Oqab Sakr – who had been involved in mediation efforts – met with Abu Ibrahim twice. He failed to win the hostages’ release because Abu Ibrahim continually upped his demands and reneged on his promises. He is said to have requested specific mediators and then would change his mind when they arrived.
According to the leader of the Al-Islam Brigade, at one point Abu Ibrahim had secured a deal that would have garnered him money, passports, and a trip to a third country via Europe in exchange for the pilgrims’ freedom – but he backed out.
Now, with the volatile leader out of the picture, sources are more optimistic that a deal is possible. They said the hostages are in good health, and living in better conditions than when they were kept with the Azaz Northern Storm Brigade.
Intense negotiations involving Doha, Jeddah, Istanbul, Beirut and the Syrian opposition are now under way in secrecy given past failures.
Lebanon is being represented by Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, the head of General Security. He is keeping the details of his negotiations quiet and assured The Daily Star that the efforts being exerted would lead to a happy ending soon, but declined to set a date.