Friday, May 25, 2012

Holy hell: Separating fact from fiction in the pilgrimage kidnapping crisis

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon]

In one of a number of events contributing to unrest in the capital this week, over 60 Lebanese men and women were kidnapped on Tuesday in the province of Aleppo, Syria, on their journey home via Turkey from a Shia religious pilgrimage to Iran. News of the abduction sparked tire-burning demonstrations and road closures in Beirut’s mostly Shia southern suburbs—two days after deadly clashes in the nearby Sunni Tariq al-Jdeideh neighborhood—that only abated after Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah gave a speech appealing for calm. While the women were quickly released, arriving safely in Beirut in the early hours of Wednesday, at the time of writing 11 of the men have yet to be freed.

The exact details of the kidnapping remain incomplete, but what is known so far is that the pilgrims were travelling in two buses when they were pulled over by armed men. After being held for three to five hours, around 50 men and women were released while 11 men were kept captive. At a rally attended by NOW Lebanon on Wednesday in the southern suburbs held in solidarity with the abductees, Hezbollah MP Ali Ammar assured relatives that the men were alive and that the party had secured their imminent release through its various contacts. Prime Minister Najib Mikati and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri were also reported to be working on the case.

Accusations as to the identity of the kidnappers have varied widely, mostly in accordance with established political divides. Allies of the Syrian regime such as Ammar have put the blame on the Free Syria Army (FSA), the most prominent militant component of the opposition to President Bashar al-Assad. This claim was echoed by the Lebanese National News Agency.

However, the FSA has denied all involvement, with leader Riad al-Assaad blaming “a group of bandits” belonging to “recently formed financial mafias” and adding that his fighters “will risk our life to liberate” the captives. Separately, high-ranking FSA officer Mustafa al-Sheikh said the kidnapping is “no doubt the work of the regime, which wants to sow chaos in the region” and “distort the image of the FSA”—a claim with which FSA spokesman Khaled Youssef Hammoud concurred.

For its part, the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) has not made any direct accusations, although it has stated that it “does not think it impossible that the regime is involved in this operation.” The regime itself has placed the blame on an “armed terrorist gang.”

Meanwhile, one anonymous relative of a captive has accused “an extreme Syrian fundamentalist group” of being behind the kidnapping. Appearing to support this accusation is the claim made on Thursday by the Syrian Islamist Sheikh Ibrahim al-Zoaabi that he is attempting to mediate on the captives’ behalf. “The kidnapped [men] are well,” he told Reuters. “I am attempting to [help] release them, but the shelling of the Syrian army on this area prevents this until now.” He asserted that the kidnappers will soon release a tape showing the men in good health, and that they will be handed over to the Lebanese authorities.

As for the testimony of the returned abductees themselves, no consensus on the kidnappers’ identities has emerged. Some were adamant that they belonged to the FSA. NOW spoke to Siham Mahmoud, who was on one of the buses and whose husband, Awad Ibrahim, remains captive. “It was the FSA who boarded the bus and took the men away,” Mahmoud told NOW. “They introduced themselves as the FSA, and they even had a badge on their military uniforms that said they were the FSA.”

This is partly corroborated by statements given by fellow pilgrims at Beirut airport. Questioned upon arrival by Al-Jadeed, several named their captors as the FSA.

However, several also denied that the kidnappers identified themselves as such, and significantly contradicted the others’ testimony in numerous respects. For example, while some said they were abused while captured—“They insulted us, they wiped the floor with us”—others said they were treated well and were unharmed. While some said the kidnappers wore military uniform, others said they wore civilian clothes. While some told of encountering intimidation on the same road during the outbound journey to Iran, others denied any such occurrence. While all agreed that the captors were armed, some described them not as militants but simply as “criminals” and “immoral [people].”

Similar discrepancies arise with regard to the alleged motives of the kidnappers. In the video, one woman claims that the “boss” of the captors told them, “We don’t want anything from you. We just want to exchange [men] with the Syrian regime.” This is echoed by the aforementioned anonymous relative, who asserts that, “The hostages are being held […] in hopes of swapping them for those of their comrades held [by Assad’s forces].” If true, the incident would resemble the exchange that took place earlier in the month of two Lebanese, Abdullah al-Zein and Khodr Jaafar, for over two dozen Syrian nationals.

However, no such quid-pro-quo has been publicly requested by the kidnappers, and indeed Hezbollah’s Ammar has denied that they have made any demands.

With so much uncertainty clouding the details, and tensions palpable on the streets, there is little to do at this stage but wait for further information. When contacted by NOW on Thursday, Hezbollah press spokesman Ibrahim Moussawi was decidedly reticent. “I don’t have any updates, I’m afraid. But I can assure you there is a committee that is following the case minute by minute.”

Luna Safwan and Amani Hamad contributed reporting to this article.

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