Kidnapped Lebanese pilgrims still in Syria: Ghalioun

AFP , Monday 28 May 2012

Head of the Syrian National Council says the Lebanese Shiite pilgrims who were kidnapped in Syria are still in the country, suggesting they were not civilians but had participated in military training

head of the opposition Syrian National Council Burhan Ghalioun (Photo: Reuters)

Lebanese Shiite pilgrims kidnapped in Syria and initially reported to have reached Turkey are still held in Syria, the head of the opposition Syrian National Council Burhan Ghalioun said Sunday.

"I believe that they are still in Syria," Ghalioun told a news conference in Istanbul.

"We spoke with some parties who had contacts with the group (of captors) and we offered our assistance to have them freed," said the outgoing leader of the SNC.

The pilgrims were snatched in northern Syria on May 22 and on Friday Lebanese Health Minister Ali Hassan Khalil said they had been freed and had reached Turkey.

But on Saturday a Turkish diplomatic source said the pilgrims were not in the country after all, adding to growing confusion on their whereabouts.

"These people are not on Turkish territory. I think there has been some confusion," the source told AFP on condition of anonymity.

Meanwhile the website of Lebanon's LBC television quoted on Sunday Ghalioun as saying the Lebanese were not abducted on religious grounds.

"Religion has nothing to do with the abduction," Ghalioun is quoted as saying, apparently to dismiss any involvement by the mostly Sunni opposition forces in Syria.

He also charged that the abducted Lebanese were not civilians but "had participated in (military) training" at some unspecified location.

Lebanon's state news agency NNA said Tuesday the 13 had been abducted in northern Syria as they made their way home from a pilgrimage in Iran and accused the rebel Free Syrian Army of having kidnapped them.

No one has claimed responsibility for their abduction and Syria's armed opposition, the Free Syrian Army, has denied any involvement.

Meanwhile the powerful Shiite movement Hezbollah, a key ally of the Syrian regime in the region, on Sunday denied media reports suggesting that one of the missing Lebanese is the nephew of its chief Hassan Nasrallah.

The group, in a report on Hezbollah television Al-Manar, added that none of the missing Lebanese are related to Nasrallah.

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