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Nine Lebanese men remain hostage in Syria; families demand action

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
February 11th, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Nine Lebanese men, taken hostage in Syria, have remained in custody since May of last year. The families of the men have grown agitated, calling for boycotts of Turkish products and sealing shut the Turkish Airlines office in Beirut in protest. "No one is doing anything to secure their release, and we hold Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia responsible for the situation," a brother of one of the detainees says.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - The families of the nine Lebanese Shia pilgrims abducted by the Free Syrian Army have begun to take matters into their own hands. The families have staged a protest outside the Qatari embassy, accusing the Gulf state of being complicit in the kidnapping and detention of their loved ones in Syria.

The ordeal began when dozens of Lebanese men and women were travelling by bus through Syria on their way back to Lebanon from a Shia pilgrimage in Iran on May 22, 2012. After crossing the Turkish border into the Aleppo district, the bus was ambushed by two dozen armed men, who forced the passengers to dismount at gunpoint.

After removing 11 of the men, they told Hayat Awali, the woman leading the pilgrimage, to report the kidnapping at the nearest police station.

"They said they would hold the men hostage to exchange them for two Syrians currently in Syrian prison," Awali told Al Jazeera. "They said because we are Shia we can get Hezbollah to pressure the Syrian government.

"They never accused us of being members of Hezbollah, but just that we are from the same sect."

In protest, residents of Beirut's southern suburbs took to the streets, burning tires and blocking roads. Government officials and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah appealed for calm, asking all residents to go home.

Information leaked out that the pilgrims would be released via Turkey, and that former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri had commissioned his private plane to fly them to Lebanese soil later the same day. The kidnappers then changed their minds.

A group known as the Azaz Northern Storm Brigade, which controls most of the Aleppo region along the Turkish border has claimed responsibility for the abductions. 

The group's leader, Abu Ibrahim accused the hostages of "suspicious activities" around Aleppo, refusing to release them.

"They are not members of Hezbollah . They kidnapped my brother because he is Shia, and that's it," a family member said.

"What they have done is affecting us, the families; not Hezbollah, and not the Lebanese government," said Shoaib. "My mother is now in hospital every few days because of this."

The group has played a "cat and mouse" game with the local media, announcing the release of the hostages within days - only to break off the agreement when the time draws nigh.

Two of the original 11 hostages have been released, but so far there have been no indications the others will be set free anytime soon.

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