Relatives of hostages suspend escalation after protest

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BEIRUT: The families of nine Lebanese kidnapped by Syrian rebels blocked the doors to the Turkish Airlines office in Downtown Beirut Wednesday but agreed to postpone escalating their protest movement at the behest of Interior Minister Marwan Charbel.

Angry relatives sealed the airline’s office door with red wax to protest what they described as Turkey’s failure to exert its influence to secure the men’s release. Turkey enjoys close relations with Syria’s armed opposition.

Charbel expressed sympathy for the families, telling the Voice of Lebanon radio station, “I don’t blame them [for protesting], but only on condition that they don’t obstruct the efforts we are exerting in the case.”

But his remarks drew the ire of Sheikh Abbas Zogheib, who was delegated by the Higher Shiite Council to follow up on the kidnapped Lebanese.

Zogheib accused the minister of “provoking” the families by questioning the efficacy of such symbolic acts and advised him to “think about his words before speaking” in comments published by the website El-Neshra.

Adham Zogheib, a relative of one of the kidnapped Lebanese who took part in Wednesday’s protest, distanced himself from Sheikh Zogheib’s comments, telling The Daily Star the sheikh “does not speak for us.”

He defended, however, the families’ right to take peaceful actions to put pressure on the Turkish government.

“As much as Charbel and the [ministerial] committee are trying, the problem is that the only party with any real power on the ground is Turkey,” Adham Zogheib said.

“We’re not saying the Turks are the ones who took them,” he added. “Hopefully after [this is resolved] the relations between our two countries will go back to the way they were or stronger.”

Wednesday evening, however, the families announced the suspension of their mobilization after reaching an agreement with Charbel.

When reached for comment, Charbel said he was unaware his comments had upset any of the relatives, but stood by his opinion that protests like the one that took place Wednesday “hurt more than they help.”

“We are following up on the issue and hopefully our efforts will lead to a positive outcome,” Charbel said.

The nine Lebanese being held in Syria were part of a group of 11 pilgrims that were kidnapped last year by Syrian rebels while returning from pilgrimage to Iran. Conflicting reports have emerged regarding the motives behind their continued captivity, with rebels demanding an apology from Hezbollah Secretary-General Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah for allegedly sending fighters into Syria and Nasrallah accusing the rebels of seeking to exploit the kidnapped Lebanese.

Two of the captives were released in August and September after intense negotiations between Lebanese and Turkish officials, and Syrian opposition groups, but so far there appears to be little progress in securing the release of the other nine.

General Security chief Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim weighed in on the kidnapped Lebanese during a wide-ranging meeting with officers over the holidays in which he discussed political and security issues affecting Lebanon.

“We will make every effort to resolve this crisis, and there are still open channels that could lead to a happy ending with them returning safely to their families,” he said, according to the National News Agency.

He went on to respond to criticism that Lebanon freed the Turkish nationals captured by the Meqdad clan last summer without a prisoner exchange.

“When we freed the Turks we did not demand an exchange or put any conditions because we were not providing a service to Turkey, rather, we were simply doing our duty toward our country and affirming our dedication to Lebanon’s interest,” he said. “There are foreigners in Lebanon and it is our duty as a security apparatus to prevent kidnapping first and foremost and we admit openly that what happened shook trust in us and in Lebanon.”


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