BEIRUT: General Security chief Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim said Tuesday he knew the whereabouts of the two bishops kidnapped in Syria last April, describing their case as more complicated than that of the recently released Lebanese pilgrims.
“About a month ago, I contacted an individual who told me where the bishops Paul Yazigi and Yohanna Ibrahim are [being held], and based on this, I began negotiations [to win their release],” Ibrahim said.
Ibrahim made his remarks during a series of regular meetings with General Security officers, according to a statement from the agency.
“We are now indirectly in contact with the kidnappers, and that is a major development that we will use as a starting point to reach our desired results,” he added, saying his agency’s most important task today was to secure the release of the bishops.
But Ibrahim did not specify a time frame for the release of the two prelates.
Yazigi, Aleppo’s Greek Orthodox Archbishop and Ibrahim, the Syriac Orthodox Archbishop, were abducted in April by armed men near the Turkish border with Syria.
The release of nine Lebanese hostages held by Syrian rebels for 17 months earlier in October boosted hopes that the return of the bishops would be imminent. Ibrahim negotiated the release of the captives on behalf of the government.
They were kidnapped in the Azaz district of Aleppo in May 2012 returning from a pilgrimage to Iran. They were released as part of a swap for two Turkish pilots kidnapped in Lebanon in August and a number of Syrian female detainees held by Damascus.
Last week, Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamid al-Thani vowed to exert efforts to help secure the bishops’ release during talks with Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai and Ibrahim in Doha. Qatar mediated the release of the Lebanese.
Ibrahim said the circumstances of the bishops’ abduction were more complex than those of the Azaz hostages.
Ibrahim said the kidnappers of the pilgrims were known because they had appeared on television. This had placed the rebels in a difficult position, the General Security chief said.
“We knew who we were negotiating with. The kidnappers appeared on TV and were visited by Lebanese journalists. They could not do as they pleased with the hostages, or they would have been marked as criminals by the local, regional and international community,” he said.
“But the case of the bishops is different because no one has claimed responsibility for it yet and [during the abduction] the priest [who was driving the bishops] was killed immediately to eliminate witnesses,” Ibrahim said, adding that it took four months to locate the bishops and the party holding them.
Ibrahim also defended his security agency against criticism that it was surpassing its mandated responsibilities by looking into abduction cases and setting up checkpoints.
“We were criticized for setting up checkpoints in the southern suburbs and the north alongside other security bodies, but I tell you such a task is in line with our powers even though the Lebanese are not used to that,” he said.
Earlier this month, Gen. Ashraf Rifi, the former head of the Internal Security Forces, criticized General Security for setting up checkpoints in Tripoli, saying this was not within the scope of its powers.
Ibrahim said his agency was working based on regulations, saying that General Security’s duties were “not limited to issuing passports and visas but have security and political aspects as well.”
While he spoke about the agency’s recent achievements such as dismantling terrorist cells, Ibrahim stressed that this success was in the interest of all Lebanese.
“The recent achievements of General Security at all levels … are not personal, but add to the record of the General Directorate [of General Security],” Ibrahim said.
He added that General Security’s achievements served the Lebanese state and its people, denying allegations that the agency was biased toward a particular political group.
“I’m a Shiite, I say it openly and I am proud of it. Every one of you should be proud of his own religion and sect … but it is important that every one of us places his sect in the service of the nation rather than the nation at the service of the sect,” Ibrahim said.