The release of 11 Lebanese pilgrims abducted in northern Syria has been delayed, according to reports, and questions and confusion continue to surround their whereabouts.
Reports by Lebanese Health Minister Ali Hassan Khalil had said the group arrived in Turkey.
But doubts about the pilgrims’ whereabouts first emerged a few hours after Khalil’s announcement on Friday when Lebanese Interior Minister Marwan Charbel said the group’s return to Lebanon had been delayed over “logistics”.
The Turkish foreign ministry said on Saturday the pilgrims “have not entered our country yet” and a senior Syrian opposition figure told the Reuters news agency that the men were still with their abductors.
The Shia men were among a group of pilgrims returning to Lebanon from Iran when gunmen stopped their bus after it crossed into Syria from Turkey on Tuesday. The women in the group were not captured and have since returned to Beirut.
Najib Mikati, the Lebanese prime minister, has reportedly delayed a trip to Turkey on Saturday to hold talks with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan, according to local media reports.
Lebanese and Syrian officials have blamed Syrian rebels for the abductions, but the Free Syrian Army, an umbrella group of opposition fighters seeking to overthrow Assad’s government, has denied the claim.
The abductions set off unrest in the streets of Beirut where youths burned tyres and blocked roads..
As reports of the hostages’ release came out on Friday, relatives celebrated in the streets of Beirut’s southern suburbs. But joy turned into disappointment and anger when hundreds were made waiting in the airport as the pilgrims expected arrival was delayed.
According to earlier reports, a private plane owned by former Prime Minister Saad Hariri had been preparing to fly the pilgrims home.
“When the news broke out that the hostages may still be with the kidnappers, people were very angry,” Al Jazeera’s Rula Amin reported from Beirut. “They were angry with the government. They wanted someone to tell them what exactly was going on.”
The Free Syrian Army had said on Thursday it was making “every effort” to locate and release the group of pilgrims.
A commander of the group reiterated it had no involvement in the abductions, and condemned “all kidnapping operations, regardless of their nationality or religious belief or sect”.
The Syrian conflict is creating tensions in Lebanon, and in the northern city of Tripoli, supporters and opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have had deadly clashes on several occasions.
The weekend killing of two members of an anti-Syrian group at an army checkpoint in Akkar, a mainly Sunni Muslim region whose inhabitants are hostile to the Syrian government, ignited protests and street battles in Beirut that left two people dead.
Against this backdrop, Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, on Friday expressed concern that interminable unrest in Syria was “contributing to instability” in Lebanon.
“The United States is concerned that developments in Syria are contributing to instability in Lebanon,” Clinton said in a statement. “We encourage all parties to exercise restraint and demonstrate respect for Lebanon’s security and stability.”