Lebanese foreign minister confident of pilgrims' release

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A Lebanese Shia woman is greeted by her relatives as she arrives at Beirut airport with a group of pilgrims who were abducted in Syria's Aleppo province and released shortly after, on 22 May 2012. (Photo: AFP - STR)

Published Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Lebanese Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour said on Wednesday that Lebanese Shia pilgrims kidnapped in northern Syria by insurgents hoping to trade the captives for detainees in Syrian government custody would be freed soon.

"Our information is that, God willing, the Lebanese will be released very soon," he told Reuters. "We can't say who is conducting the negotiations, but the matter is ongoing and, God willing, we're going to reach a positive result."

Mansour confirmed the party negotiating for the release of the hostages was Arab, but declined to specify further.

Families of Lebanese Shia abducted in northern Aleppo as they returned from pilgrimage in Iran on Tuesday blocked roads in mainly Shia neighborhoods of Beirut, demanding the release of men they said were held captive by Syrian rebels.

However after calls for calm from Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah the protests dissipated.

"We understand the emotions expressed...This is our responsibility...We can express our discontent in a civilized way," Nasrallah said.

"If the parents want to protest or have a sit-in in a mosque, it's their right. But, in the name of Hezbollah and Amal, nobody should block roads," he added.

Relatives of those being held said rebels who seized a bus carrying the pilgrims set free the females and elderly men, but held 13 men to demand the release of insurgents. Syria's state SANA news agency said there were 12 captives, one of them a Syrian.

Earlier in the day Syria's external opposition, the Syrian National Council, called on rebels in Syria to help secure the release of the pilgrims.

"The Syrian National Council condemns any kidnappings, assault or terrorizing of our Lebanese brothers, and demands their immediate release," an SNC statement said.

"The council calls on the officers of the Free Syrian Army...who rebelled against the repression and criminality of the regime, to do everything they can to free the Lebanese brothers," the statement said.

The Free Syrian Army is an umbrella group set up by army officers in exile to try to bring rebels under a centralized command. But most rebels operate outside FSA control, and relations between the FSA and the SNC have been frosty.

The kidnappers released the female pilgrims, who arrived at Beirut airport early Wednesday morning.

A spokesperson on behalf of the Free Syrian Army denied the group was behind the kidnappings, AFP reported on Wednesday.

Inham Yatim, one of the Lebanese pilgrims, said that armed men in a white car forced them to move to an orchard under the pretext of protecting them from shelling. The male pilgrims were then handcuffed and made to face a wall.

(Al-Akhbar, Reuters, AFP)

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