Last updated: 26 May, 2012

Freed Lebanese Shiites are not in Turkey after all

A group of Lebanese Shiite pilgrims kidnapped in Syria and said by Lebanese authorities to have reached Turkey are not in the country after all, a Turkish diplomatic source said on Saturday.

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

The 13 pilgrims, who were snatched in northern Syria earlier this week, were reported as having arrived in Turkey on Friday by Lebanese Health Minister Ali Hassan Khalil.

But on Saturday, Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati said in a statement he was postponing a visit to Turkey following “information indicating that contacts and efforts to free the Lebanese still continue”.

Doubts about the pilgrims’ whereabouts first emerged a few hours after Khalil’s announcement when Interior Minister Marwan Charbel said the group’s return to Lebanon had been delayed over “logistics”.

“They are well but there is a delay due to logistical problems,” Charbel said, adding: “Maybe they are being debriefed (by Turkish authorities).”

But an Istanbul-based member of the opposition Syrian National Council told AFP he had information indicating that the pilgrims had never entered Turkey.

“As far as we know, the Lebanese abductees have not entered Turkey, as of noon Saturday,” he said, asking not to be identified.

Mikati added to the confusion on Saturday saying he had cancelled a visit to Turkey.

“It was decided that I would visit Turkey today to express my thanks following the assumption that the Lebanese citizens had been freed,” Mikati said. “But since this has been delayed, I decided to postpone the visit.”

Mikati’s office declined to elaborate on the fate of the missing Lebanese.

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.

But the rebel army denied the claim and said it was making “every effort” to locate and release the pilgrims.

The abduction followed deadly clashes in Lebanon between supporters and opponents of the Syrian regime, amid fears that the crisis in Syria would spill over into Lebanon.