BEIRUT: Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, director-general of General Security, flew directly from Belgium to Turkey in an unplanned visit Thursday to follow up on negotiations for the release of nine Lebanese pilgrims held hostage by Syrian rebels.
Speaking to The Daily Star, a General Security source said “a development” prompted Ibrahim to cut short his visit to Belgium and head to Turkey, declining to offer details or even disclose whether it was a positive or negative development.
“If there hadn’t been a development in the case, he [Ibrahim] wouldn’t have gone to Turkey,” the source said, requesting to remain anonymous.
“These are negotiations, and in negotiations there are complicated issues, some that can be resolved and some that cannot,” the source said.
Ibrahim left for Turkey after taking part in the 15th International Summit on Transnational Crime in Brussels.
The source added that negotiations were on the right track, confirming the atmosphere had been encouraging so far. He would not say whether a release date had been set for the pilgrims.
Caretaker Interior Minister Marwan Charbel said Ibrahim went to Turkey when he received a phone call from Turkish officials.
“In a previous visit to Turkey, Ibrahim posed a number of questions during negotiations, and I believe he was asked to come to Turkey to get the answers,” Charbel said.
The caretaker minister said he hoped the issue would be resolved this month, saying that Ibrahim would meet Turkish and Qatari mediators in Turkey.
Charbel said Lebanese authorities were negotiating for the simultaneous release of the nine pilgrims along with two Turkish pilots who were kidnapped in Lebanon.
Ibrahim arrived back at Beirut’s Rafik Hariri International Airport late Thursday night.
The source said that President Michel Sleiman contacted Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamid al-Thani this week and asked for his help in securing the release of the Lebanese hostages.
The Qatari official promised Sleiman that he would exert efforts to resolve the case soon, the source added. When reached for comment, Sleiman’s office would not confirm the call.
Describing the case as “big and complicated,” the source said the positive signs that emerged last week were encouraging, particularly in light of the Qatari emir’s involvement.
The nine pilgrims were among 11 Lebanese kidnapped by Syrian rebels in May of last year in the Azaz district of Aleppo. The pilgrims were returning after completing a religious pilgrimage in Iran. Two were released in August and September of last year.
Positive signs emerged last week that the nine would be released soon. Ibrahim is negotiating for the release of the pilgrims with Qatari and Turkish mediators on behalf of Lebanon.
Hayat Awali, spokesperson for the families of the Lebanese hostages, was cautious. She said she had telephoned Ibrahim who told her that he was in Turkey to follow up on the case:
“We have no information about a positive or negative development. He [Ibrahim] did not give us a specific date [for the release of the hostages], but the atmosphere appears to be positive.”
Awali said Ibrahim refused to negotiate for the release of additional Syrian female detainees whose names were provided by Syrian rebels via Turkish mediators last week.
Earlier, Syrian rebels had demanded the release of over 1,000 Syrian female detainees held by Damascus in return for the pilgrims.
“The Syrian authorities agreed to release 127 Syrian female detainees, 27 had already been released and the remaining hundred would be freed in return for the nine hostages,” Awali said.
The release of the nine pilgrims is expected to facilitate the release of two Turkish pilots who were kidnapped in Beirut in August.
A group calling itself Visitors of the Shrine of Imam Ali al-Reda claimed responsibility for the abduction, demanding the release of the nine Lebanese hostages in return for the Turkish nationals. The families of the Lebanese captives deny any involvement in the kidnapping of the pilots but argue that Turkey wields influence over Syrian rebels and play a key role in releasing their loved ones.
The two Turkish pilots appeared in good health on a tape aired Tuesday by a local television station.