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Hezbollah chief calls for release of Lebanese hostages in Syria

June 2, 2012 |  6:19 am

BEIRUT — New developments have emerged in the murky case of the 11 abducted  Lebanese Shiite pilgrims in northern Syria.

A previously unknown rebel group calling itself the “Syrian Revolutionaries-Aleppo province” has claimed responsibility for the abduction and said the hostages were in good health. What do they want in exchange for the hostages? An “apology” from Hassan Nasrallah, powerful chief of the Shiite Hezbollah movement and ally of embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad.

"The kidnapped Lebanese are being looked after by us and are in good health," the group said Thursday in a statement received by the pan-Arab news network Al Jazeera. "Negotiations for their release are possible as soon as Nasrallah apologizes .... Our problem is not with any particular community but with those who assist in the suppression of the uprising."

But speaking via video link at a Friday night rally in Beirut commemorating the death of Iran’s late Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomenei, Nasrallah countered by challenging the kidnappers to come to him directly with their problems or political disagreements instead of abducting innocent pilgrims.

“If your problem was with me, there are a lot of means and ways to resolve it,” Nasrallah said in the televised speech. “We can resolve it any way you want, whether through war or through love and peace. Using the innocent pilgrims as hostages is a great injustice of you,” he addressed the captors.

As Nasrallah spoke, Hezbollah’s TV station Manar reported that Lebanese Premier Najib Miqati had received a delegation of the abductees' families. Miqati just returned from a trip to Turkey where he held talks with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who reportedly said his country would continue “intensive efforts” to help secure the release of the hostages.

The case of the abducted pilgrims has been shrouded in mystery and uncertainty. The group was snatched by gunmen who stopped their bus in northern Syria last month. The pilgrims were said to be returning home from a pilgrimage in Iran by land via Turkey and Syria. The women on the bus were allowed to leave and various media reports pointed toward Syrian rebels holding the hostages. But the Free Syrian Army (FSA), an umbrella group, has denied any involvement in the kidnapping.

Last Friday, Lebanese officials announced the pilgrims would be released and arrive in Turkey, then be flown back to Lebanon the same night. Families and reporters gathered at the airport in Beirut to welcome the released hostages. When the hostages didn't arrive, a Lebanese minister told reporters in a hastily arranged news conference at the airport that they had been delayed because of logistical reasons.

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.

-- Alexandra Sandels