Late last week, Lebanese officials announced that the group had been released, had arrived safely in Turkey and were going to be flown back to Beirut. But that never came to pass. Now, their case appears to have been caught up in the swirling currents of Lebanese-Syrian relations, a delicate matter at a time when Syria faces a rebellion at home and divided loyalties across the border in Lebanon.
Media reports here indicate that Syrian rebels are still holding the 11 pilgrims as hostages. Amid growing questions about the abductees’ whereabouts, Lebanese Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour on Monday urged Arab League leader Nabil Elaraby to help broker their release, according to Lebanon's National News Agency.
The Shiites reportedly were snatched by gunmen in an area near Aleppo as they were returning home in buses from a pilgrimage to Iran via Turkey and Syria. The female pilgrims were allowed to leave, but the 11 men were held. Some media reports say a 12th man, identified as the group’s Syrian bus driver, also was taken hostage.
Relatives of the abducted have said the men were kidnapped by Syrian rebels.
The hostage drama has threatened to inflame dangerous sectarian tensions here amid signs that the crisis in Lebanon’s bigger neighbor, Syria, is increasingly spilling across the border. Lebanon has witnessed deadly internal clashes in recent weeks tied to the Syrian conflict.
As news broke about the pilgrims' abduction, angry protesters took to the streets of Beirut’s Shiite-majority southern suburbs and burned tires and trash cans.
There were reports Friday that the hostages were about to be released. Family members and journalists gathered at Beirut airport to greet them. When the hostages didn't arrive, Interior Minister Marwan Charbel told reporters in a hastily arranged news conference at the airport that they had been delayed because of logistical reasons.
More complications arose when the Syrian opposition alleged in media reports that some of the captives were believed to be members of the Shiite Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, a steadfast supporter of the embattled government of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Hezbollah denied rebel claims that three of the hostages were members of the party, Lebanon’s English-language Daily Star newspaper reported Monday.
Hezbollah’s television station, Al Manar, carried an alert saying the militant group denied "claims" that the nephew of the movement's powerful chief, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, or any other relatives are among the hostages.
In its report, the Daily Star also had the latest development: The hostages’ Syrian captors were said to have made several demands in exchange the hostages' freedom, including the release of some anti-regime prisoners in Syrian government custody. Hostage swaps have become a common feature of the raging conflict in Syria. The Lebanese pilgrims now seem to be caught up in the prisoner exchange.
Meantime, Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati has issued a decree temporarily banning pilgrimage travel in the region via land, local media reports said.
-- Alexandra Sandels
Photo: Relatives bearing Lebanon's flag celebrate reports of the release of Lebanese Shiite Muslim pilgrims kidnapped in Syria. The pilgrims never arrived, to the dismay of the relatives waiting Friday at Beirut's international airport. Credit: Joseph Eid / AFP/Getty Images