BEIRUT-- In a case that has roiled sectarian tensions, new video aired Saturday that appeared to show 11 Lebanese Shiite pilgrims in good health but in the custody of Syrian rebels who apparently kidnapped them.
The 11 men were snatched in northern Syria in May on their way back from a Shiite Muslim shrine. A previously unknown group calling itself “Syrian Rebels, Aleppo Province” claimed responsibility for the abduction, according to a statement received by Al Jazeera, the pan-Arab satellite TV channel.
The kidnapping has raised tensions in Lebanon, with its sometimes uneasy mix of religious sects and ethnic groups. Many officials worry about a spillover of Syria’s violence into neighboring Lebanon. High-ranking Lebanese officials have demanded that the pilgrims be released and are said to be involved in behind-the-scenes talks to secure their freedom.
The kidnappers are presumed to be part of Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority, who are leading the uprising in the country against the government of President Bashar Assad, a member of the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
The kidnappers demanded an apology from Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, the Shiite militant group based in Lebanon. Nasrallah has been a firm supporter of Assad. The Hezbollah chief, a regional power broker, has offered no apology.
Al Jazeera Arabic broadcast the video in which the kidnapped pilgrims assured their families that they had not been harmed. One abductee said he and the others were “guests” of the Syrian insurgents.
“Thank God we are well. We are sitting with the guys and they are treating us very well, better than our families, and we thank God,” said Hassan Hammoud, one of the abducted men.
“I’m Hassan Arzoumi. I want to reassure my family that I’m fine and in good health,” another abductee said in the video.
Sayiid Ali Abbas, another of the kidnapped pilgrims, added: “I want to assure everyone who is worried for me and tell them that we are not kidnapped. We are guests of the Syrian rebels, and, God willing, we are coming back home.”
In a written statement at the end of the video, the kidnappers said their captives were in "good health" but gave mixed signals about their possible release. The abductees may be handed over to a neighboring nation after "consultations," the group said. They may also be turned over to Syrian authorities once a "democratic parliament" is seated, the group said, presumably referring to a post-Assad period.