x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Hizbollah urges Syrian rebels to free pilgrims

A rebel group in Syria said it would not begin negotiations to free the hostages without an apology from Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary general of Hizbollah.

BEIRUT // Hizbollah's leader yesterday appealed directly to Syrian rebels who claim to be holding 11 Lebanese hostages, saying the men should not be held responsible for grievances the rebels have against the Lebanese Shiite group.

On Thursday, the rebels, who call themselves the Syrian Revolutionaries in Aleppo, claimed in a statement obtained by the Al Jazeera television network that they were holding the Shiite pilgrims captive.

The rebel group said it would not begin negotiations to free the hostages without an apology from Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary general of Hizbollah, for saying that the kidnapping would not change Hizbollah's support for the Syrian regime.

Yesterday, Mr Nasrallah urged the kidnappers to sort out their differences with Hizbollah, not the pilgrims.

"If [your] problem is with me or Hizbollah or a political movement in Lebanon which has a specific stance towards the situation in Syria, separate the issue of the innocent aside and solve your problem with us," he said in a televised address.

"But, to take innocent people as hostages for the sake of solving this problem ... this is a great injustice which you must put a stop to."

Al Jazeera aired photographs on Thursday night said to be of the hostages, but did not say how it had obtained the material. The rebel group reportedly said the men, who were abducted inside Syria on May 22, were in good health.

While the authenticity of the images and statement could not be independently verified, the announcement was the first claim of responsibility since the pilgrims were abducted a week and a half ago.

Earlier reports suggested that the men's captors were holding them as bargaining chips in negotiations to free detained Syrian opposition figures.

The 11 men were on their way back to Lebanon from a pilgrimage to Iran when they were reportedly taken by gunmen in the province of Aleppo while travelling by bus through Syria.

Last Friday there were indications that the group had been released. But the men failed to show up at Beirut airport and they remain captives.

The kidnapping has rattled Lebanon, where many fear being dragged further into the chaos in Syria. The country is largely divided between those who still support the regime of President Bashar Al Assad, including Hizbollah, and those opposed to his rule.

The 15-month crisis in Syria has also raised sectarian tensions in Lebanon, which has seen deadly clashes in recent weeks.

News of the kidnapping last week prompted street protests, as people burnt tyres and blocked roads.

However, a televised address by Mr Nasrallah managed to defuse the situation as he urged people to remain calm. Yesterday he stressed that the Lebanese government was working to free the hostages.

Also yesterday, Najib Mikati, the Lebanese prime minister, held talks on the Syria crisis with joint United Nations-Arab League special envoy Kofi Annan.

After the meeting, Mr Annan told reporters that the UN would do what it could to help secure the release of the pilgrims.



* With additional reporting by Associated Press and Reuters