Lebanese PM, Erdoğan seek ways to rescue kidnapped pilgrims

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has discussed with his Lebanese counterpart, »»

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has discussed with his Lebanese counterpart, Najib Mikati, options for securing the release of 11 Shiite pilgrims kidnapped by the Syrian opposition, pledging to continue efforts to rescue the Lebanese citizens.

The Lebanese men were on their way back from a pilgrimage in Iran on May 22 when gunmen intercepted their buses in the northern Syrian province of Aleppo. Since then, no one has claimed responsibility for the kidnapping.

Reports emerged last Friday that the hostages were about to be released thanks to Turkish efforts, prompting a rush to the airport by family members. However, the men never arrived and it became clear the release plans went awry.

One opposition figure who said he spoke to the kidnappers told The Associated Press that the hostage takers decided not to release the men after Syrian forces began attacking areas held by opposition fighters in Aleppo. Now, he said, the kidnappers are demanding Syrian authorities release 500 opposition detainees, including Lt. Col. Hussein Harmoush, one of the first officers to defect after the uprising began. Harmoush was later arrested by authorities during a special operation.

Lebanese officials and Syrian activists have said the men are being held in an area near the Turkish border, but there is little credible information about how they are doing. Shiite leaders in Lebanon have scrambled to deny various rumors that might aggravate the situation -- including reports that one of the hostages is related to Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah.

Hezbollah is a staunch ally of the Syrian regime, where a predominantly Sunni uprising is trying to oust the Assad family dynasty. The families of the kidnapped Shiites blame Syria's Sunni rebels for abducting the men.

The case has the potential to inflame sectarian tensions in Lebanon and trigger retaliatory attacks against tens of thousands of Syrian nationals now in Lebanon. The overwhelming majority of opposition fighting President Bashal al-Assad's regime are Sunni Muslims, while Assad and the ruling elite in Syria belong to the tiny Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

The Syrian opposition said on Thursday that they were holding the pilgrims, and accused some of the hostages of opposing their revolution against Assad. They added they would not start negotiations for the release of the hostages until Nasrallah apologized for a recent speech.

A joint written statement released by the Turkish Prime Ministry said Erdoğan told Mikati that Turkey will continue to its efforts to help secure the release of the kidnapped Lebanese citizens. Mikati replied to Erdoğan that this issue is urgent and “requested Turkey's pleasing efforts continue” in this regard.

The statement came after Erdoğan and Mikati had detailed talks on bilateral relations and regional affairs. Both leaders reaffirmed their will to improve their relations, the statement added.

Erdoğan stressed how much importance Turkey attaches to Lebanon's independence, sovereignty and political stability, adding that a responsible approach from all sides for the sake of national peace and stability in Lebanon will be supported by Turkey.

Lebanon is a neighbor to Syria where the crisis has already spilled across the border into the country over the past three weeks, sparking deadly violence in a country that remains deeply divided over the 15-month-old uprising against Assad. But the Shiites' abduction is potentially explosive, in part because it enflames Lebanon's fragile Sunni-Shiite fault line.

Recent clashes between Alawites and anti-Assad Lebanese Sunni groups in Lebanon's second largest city of Tripoli killed eight people earlier this month. The United Nations says Assad's forces have killed more than 9,000 people since the start of the uprising, inspired by protests against autocratic leaders across the Arab world. Activists put this number at 13,000. Syria blames “terrorists” for the violence and says 2,600 soldiers and police have been killed.     


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