Where are the Lebanese pilgrims?

Over the weekend a new crisis erupted in Lebanon over the Lebanese pilgrims who were kidnapped in Syria last week. The men were taken from Aleppo while returning from a pilgrimage to Iran, the women who were travelling with them were returned to Beirut and have accused the Free Syrian Army (FSA) of being responsible. They have denied this.

Following an anticipated release on Friday, it remains unclear where the men are, and rumours are flying wild. Furthermore, their number remains disputed, with some media outlets stating 11 men are missing, while others quote 13. Meanwhile, the government has remained calm (and so have the streets), despite reports that the Syrian kidnappers have made additional demands in the wake of the massacre in Houla, Syria, which took place on Friday.

After a jubilant announcement by Hassan Nasrallah on Friday that the hostages were to be freed that evening, a private plane belonging to former prime minister Rafic Hariri was dispatched to Turkey to collect the 11 men. The release of the men was widely reported in the media.

The media, officials and relatives who had gathered at Beirut airport on Friday evening, where the pilgrims were rumoured to touch down around 11 pm, were left empty handed when the plane failed to materialise. However, the Lebanese government has remained optimistic and on Saturday, Lebanese Interior Minister Marwan Charbel attributing the delay to ‘logistics’ on the Turkish side, possibly the interrogation of the men.

However, it now turns out that Turkey does not know where the men are. Turkey’s government spokesman Saljouk Onal told al-Jadeed TV that Ankara is in the dark about where the hostages are being held and is trying to locate them. “We are trying to contact all the parties who might be concerned with this issue.”

The plot thickened as rumours materialised that three of the men belong to Hezbollah, even including relatives of Hassan Nasrallah. The resistance party’s media office denied this, releasing a statement which said: “Hezbollah denies that a nephew of Secretary General Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah or any of his relatives are among the kidnapped Lebanese.”

The Free Syrian Army, meanwhile, has also denied all involvement. On Thursday, a commander told al Jazeera it had no involvement in the abductions, and condemned “all kidnapping operations, regardless of their nationality or religious belief or sect”.

However, the saga is unlikely to end soon; reports have now materialised that the captors are increasing their demands. They want the Lebanese government to release anti-regime activists by the government, a commonly heard sentiment in the northern city of Tripoli which erupted over the arrest of an anti-regime activist last week.

A security source told the Daily Star that the hostages are now spread out over several areas and that the heavy actions by the Syrian Army are likely to complicate the release. Over the weekend, the Syrian Army committed a massacre in Houla, near Homs, and heavy military action started in Hama last night.

Meanwhile, the streets of Beirut remain quieter than usual as fear for what’s next returns.The answer to the pilgrims whereabouts isn’t solved yet.

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