BEIRUT -- In a case that has roiled sectarian tensions, new video surfaced Saturday appearing to show 11 Lebanese Shiite pilgrims in good health but in the custody of Syrian rebels who apparently kidnapped them.
The 11 men were seized in northern Syria in May on their way back from a Shiite 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 channel.
The kidnapping has raised tensions in Lebanon, with its uneasy mix of sects and ethnic groups. Many officials worry about a spillover of Syria’s violence into neighboring Lebanon. 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 Syria 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, an important Hezbollah ally.
Al Jazeera Arabic, broadcasted Saturday a 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 kidnapped men.
“I’m Hassan Arzoumi, I want to reassure my family that I’m fine and in good health,” another declared in the video.
Sayiid Ali Abbas, another of the abducted pilgrms, 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.”
-- Rima Marrouch
Photo: An image from Hezbollah's Al-Manar television shows Hassan Nasrallah, secretary general of Lebanon's militant Shiite movement, giving a speech on June 1 in which he called for the release of 11 Lebanese Shiite pilgrims held in Syria. Credit: AFP/Al-Manar