BEIRUT // Lebanon's prime minister travelled to Turkey yesterday evening, as part of the latest efforts to resolve a hostage situation that threatens to drag Lebanon further into the Syria crisis.
Najib Mikati, along with the interior minister Marwan Charbel and Adnan Mansour, the foreign minister, were expected to meet Turkish officials in Istanbul, including Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, in a bid to find a way to free the 11 Lebanese citizens kidnapped in Syria last week.
The group of Shiite men were on their way back to Lebanon last Tuesday from a pilgrimage to Iran when they were abducted. There has been no claim of responsibility for the kidnapping.
"The visit mainly aims at following up on the case of the Lebanese abducted with the Turkish officials," Mr Mikati said prior to his departure, the state-run National News Agency reported. "We hope that the ongoing efforts would lead to the closure of this humanitarian dossier, the reassurance of the pilgrims' families, and their return safe and sound to Lebanon."
On Friday, reports that the men had been released and were on their way to Beirut sent relatives rushing to meet them at the airport. However, the group did not arrive as expected.
With no information about the men's well-being or whereabouts, the kidnapping has put even more strain on an already combustible atmosphere.
The case has increased tensions in Lebanon, where there are fears that the country could be dragged further into the turbulence across the border.
Lebanon's fractured political environment remains divided over the 15-month uprising against the regime of Bashar Al Assad, the Syrian president.
Some groups, including Hizbollah, have maintained support for the Syrian government, while members of the opposition March 14-bloc have spoken out against the regime.
Lebanon's government, meanwhile, has tried to adhere to its policy of "disassociating" from the crisis in Syria as a means of maintaining stability.
"Lebanon and Syria are twin countries - developments in one can have an effect on the other," said Hilal Khashan, a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut.
"You cannot entirely insulate Lebanon from the developments in Syria. However, the major groups are in agreement on the need to minimise the effect of the Syrian civil war on Lebanon."
In recent weeks, the Syria crisis has spilt over the border, with outbreaks of fighting between forces against and those aligned to the Al Assad regime.
At least eight people were killed during clashes in Tripoli earlier this month.
While some fear that the kidnapping may provoke further conflict, Mr Khashan believes that people are bracing themselves more for bad news, rather than violence.
"Anything can really instigate strife in Lebanon - we don't have a shortage of individual violent incidents," he said.
"But, if something was to happen in connection with the kidnappings, I think it would be contained" by Hizbollah, he added.
Initial news of the abduction sparked protests, with people taking to the streets, blocking roads and burning tyres.
Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbollah's leader, appealed for calm during a televised address, which defused the situation.
Hizbollah security is believed to be heavily deployed in Beirut's southern suburbs in anticipation of any further unrest.
But questions remain about the fate of the missing men, their location and why their apparent rescue was prematurely announced.
The men were reportedly taken by gunmen as they travelled by bus in the northern Syrian province of Aleppo, not far from the Turkish border. Women taking part in the pilgrimage were allowed to return to Lebanon.
There have been reports suggesting that the men's captors are holding them as bargaining chips in negotiations to free detained Syrian opposition figures.
Lebanese politicians are trying to calm nerves, insisting that they are working with information that the men are alive.
Others have also tried to reframe the case as a national issue, not a sectarian one.
Earlier this week, Lebanon's foreign minister, Adnan Mansour, appealed to the Arab League for help in securing the release of the hostages.
In the immediate aftermath of the abduction, Mr Mikati also issued a temporary ban on pilgrims travelling overland.