Nothing has soothed the aching hearts of the families of the 11 Lebanese abductees other than continued prayers. Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and UN envoy Kofi Annan said yesterday [May 31] that intensive efforts are underway to release the hostages. Meanwhile, a new Syrian group called “Rebels of Syria-Rural Aleppo” claimed responsibility for the abduction through the news channel Al-Jazeera. the group stressed that the hostages are safe and published pictures of their passports. The Rebels of Syria-Rural Aleppo set conditions for the hostages’ release, including the release of opposition members held by the regime and an apology by Hezbollah Secretary-General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah for his recent speech.
The issue was a priority topic during the talks held by Lebanese President Michel Sleiman and House Speaker Nabih Berri with UN envoy Kofi Annan. Annan only said that the case is mysterious, and promised to help through the international observers who are present in Syria. Annan also said that the observers are able to “talk with all the forces present on the ground and ask them about the issue.”
On the political level, President Michel Suleiman headed this morning [June 1] to the Saudi city of Jeddah on a one-day visit to meet with King Abdullah Bin-Abd-al-Aziz. According to the Saudi Press Agency, the meeting will discuss “bilateral relations between the two countries and how to reinforce them, in addition to regional and international issues of common interest.” Suleiman's visit to Jeddah comes ten days after his call for resuming national dialogue. This call was encouraged by other Arab and international countries, as reflected by the cable King Abdullah sent to Suleiman ten days ago.
Suleiman is expected to ask Saudi Arabia to use its influence with its Lebanese allies to encourage them to participate in the dialogue. He will also ask the kingdom to help with the issue of the Lebanese abductees in Syria. Saudi Arabia will be asked to persuade the Gulf states to reverse their decision on banning their nationals from traveling to Lebanon. Suleiman is set to visit Kuwait on Sunday [May 3] for the same purpose.
Although the families of the kidnapped had pinned high hopes on Mikati’s visit to Turkey, the Turkish prime minister only said in the joint official statement that Turkey “will continue to exert intensive efforts to save the Lebanese citizens currently present in Syria.” Mikati said he “supported taking fast action in this regard,” asking Turkey to “continue its satisfactory and persistent efforts.” Turkey’s ambassador to Lebanon, Inan Auzildise, has been assigned to follow up on the hostage issue as well as others that interest the two countries.
The appearance of the Syrian kidnapping group via Al-Jazeera in conjunction with the Mikati-Davotuglu meeting was shocking to both the Lebanese and Turkish sides. It was the first time a Syrian opposition group declared responsibility for such an operation and set conditions on television while providing names and copies of passports. The statement issued by the kidnappers said that “the Lebanese hostages are in our custody and in good health” and that negotiations to release the Lebanese hostages “are possible after Nasrallah apologizes for his recent speech.” The statement added that “we have no problem with any sect in particular, but with those who take part in the suppression of the revolution.”
The statement notes that the group decided to extend the detention period of the hostages for several reasons, including the fact that five of them were found to be Hezbollah officers. Other reasons include the Houla massacre and the recent provocative speech made by Nasrallah.
Annan still trying
On the other hand, the talks held by international envoy Kofi Annan yesterday [May 31] in Beirut with Suleiman and Berri, which he will continue today [June 1] in a meeting with Mikati, shows that Annan is making a serious effort to render his mission a success. He is trying hard to overcome the difficulties that the mission is facing, and limit the negative deterioration of the situation in Syria.
However, Annan expressed his fear of a negative development in Syria. He asserted to Suleiman and Berri that he seeks to increase the chances of his plan’s success, especially since they have made “progress on many issues.” However Annan admitted to “still need increased efforts.” It has been understood that Annan's visit to Lebanon comes as a stop on his way to visit all the countries that neighbor Syria. He is urging them to be a positive catalyst for the success of his mission. Remarkably, Annan encouraged Lebanon’s “self-distancing” policy and for Lebanon to not act as an element that fuels the Syrian situation. According to Annan, the situation requires efforts to prevent the smuggling of weapons and insurgents. There was an emphasis on the need for Lebanon to provide assistance in this regard.
Sayyed Nasrallah is expected to make a televised appearance at a ceremony that will be hosted by the Iranian embassy at 4:30 pm Lebanon time at the UNESCO headquarters. The ceremony will commemorate the anniversary of the death of Iranian Supreme leader Imam Mousavi Khomeini.
Electrical workers on strike
In other news, contract workers and bill collectors at Electricite du Liban (EDL), who were still on strike yesterday [May 31], confronted representatives of service providers who were hired to replace them when they attempted to slip collection bills out of the EDL headquarters via a taxi. Angered, the workers expelled the representatives and returned the bills to the company.
Jad al-Rimh, secretary of the “follow-up committee,” said, “The collection of electricity bills by the [private] companies means that their job has actually begun.” He warned that “the recurrence of such provocation attempts would lead to a broader and larger protest [by the EDL employees],” holding the service providers “responsible for any reaction that might happen.”
Furthermore, the joint parliamentary committees will hold a special meeting to discuss the issue of the contract workers on Monday [June 4]. Meanwhile, Minister of Energy and Water Gebran Bassil insists on issuing limited exams to qualify for work in civil service. Minister of Labor Salim Jreissati threatened to deprive workers who are “exercising systematic sabotage and disrupting public services” of their right to resort to the Ministry of Labor if they are not granted full-time work.