A previously unknown armed group calling itself the “Syrian Revolutionaries — Aleppo Province” said on Thursday that it is holding a group of Lebanese Shiite pilgrims who went missing last week.
“The kidnapped Lebanese are being looked after by us and are in good health,” the group said in a statement received by Qatar-based satellite news channel Al-Jazeera.
“Negotiations for their release are possible as soon as (Hezbollah leader Hassan) Nasrallah apologises.
“Our problem is not with any particular community but with those who assist in the suppression of the uprising,” it added, in allusion to the 15-month revolt against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The Shiite militant group, which is the leading force in the current ruling coalition in Beirut, has close relations with Assad’s regime and its Iranian ally.
Al-Jazeera showed images of men said to be among the kidnap victims as well as passports.
Since the dozen or so returning pilgrims went missing on May 22 in the northern Syrian province of Aleppo, Nasrallah has called for restraint and urged his followers to refrain from sectarian revenge attacks against Syrian Sunnis.
On Sunday, the outgoing head of the opposition Syrian National Council, Burhan Ghalioun, said the pilgrims were still being held in Syria after reports, later denied, that they had resurfaced in Turkey.
“We spoke with some parties who had contacts with the group and we offered our assistance to have them freed,” Ghalioun said.
But the mainstream rebel Free Syrian Army, which has close links with the SNC, has denied any involvement in the kidnapping.
Leaders of the kidnappers quoted by Al-Jazeera said five of the men being held had admitted to being “officers” in Hezbollah, some of them “implicated in massacres” in Syria.
Nasrallah had said in a speech addressed to the kidnappers that his party would not change its position concerning the conflict in neighbouring Syria, declaring: “If this kidnapping is aimed at putting pressure on our political position, it’s a waste of time.”