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 the Al-Jazeera news network. “Negotiations for their release are possible as soon as (Hizbullah leader Hassan) Nasrallah apologizes.”
“Our problem is not with any particular community but with those who assist in the suppression of the uprising,” the group added.
Al-Jazeera showed images of men said to be among the kidnap victims as well as passports.
The dozen or so returning pilgrims went missing on May 22 in the northern Syrian province of Aleppo. Last week it was reported that the pilgrims were freed and had arrived in Turkey, but those reports were later denied.
Beirut said last week that it had asked Turkey to help free the kidnapped pilgrims.
AFP reported that Nasrallah has called for restraint since the kidnapping and urged his followers to refrain from sectarian revenge attacks against Syrian Sunnis.
The outgoing head of the opposition Syrian National Council, Burhan Ghalioun, said this week the pilgrims were still being held in Syria, according to AFP.
“We spoke with some parties who had contacts with the group and we offered our assistance to have them freed,” Ghalioun said.
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 Hizbullah, some of them “implicated in massacres” in Syria.
AFP noted that Nasrallah had said in a speech addressed to the kidnappers that his group would not change its position concerning the conflict in neighboring Syria, declaring, “If this kidnapping is aimed at putting pressure on our political position, it's a waste of time.”