Held hostage to fortune in Lebanon

There was a time in the mid '80s to the early '90s, when the words Lebanon and kidnapping were, if you'll excuse the expression, joined at the hip.
There was a time in the mid '80s to the early'90s, when the words Lebanon and kidnapping were, if you'll excuse the expression, joined at the hip. Even 21 years after the last western hostage was freed, after Beirut briefly regained its reputation as a party town - one that was in fact safer than many western capitals - the country still never quite shook off the hostage tag.

And it probably won't for some time yet.

The kidnappings have begun again. They started last year in fact, when the hitherto unknown "military wing" of the equally mysterious Moqdad clan who, protesting the abduction of nine Shiite pilgrims in Syria, began blocking roads in Beirut and threatening to abduct vacationing Arabian Gulf nationals.

This summer, a group calling itself Zuwwar Imam Ali Al Reda has taken out its frustration on Ankara. And so, Turkish Airlines pilots Murat Akpinar and Murat Agca, were "lifted" near Beirut airport nearly two weeks ago.

The airport road saw many an abduction during the civil war and the fact that the two were also reportedly whisked into the "Hizbollah-controlled" southern suburbs, flagged another cliché and another depressing reminder that old habits do indeed die hard.

To make matters even worse, Hayat Awali, a spokeswoman for the families of the kidnapped pilgrims, later told Al Jadeed TV that, "any Turkish national on Beirut's streets is a target".

Rumours on the street is that Hizbollah, if not directly involved in the abductions, at least gave the operation the green light. It may just be a move in a chess game between Tehran and Ankara, but, as ever, the repercussions on tiny Lebanon cannot be underestimated.

Turkey has been a kind neighbour to Lebanon in recent years. Lebanese do not need a visa to visit Turkey - a big deal for a nation used to waiting in line for permission to travel even to fellow Arab countries - and the close cultural ties meant that many Lebanese probably feel a great affinity with Turkey.

It was with the Turks that the deal to rent to two electricity-generating barges was signed last year, coming as it did on the heels of a free trade agreement between the two countries in 2010. Lebanese-Turkish trade figures for 2012 amounted to US$1.02 billion, $846 million of which was made up of exports to Lebanon.

And let us not forget the fragile reputation of the airport and the airport road. The last thing Lebanon needs is Rafik Hariri International Airport labelled as a hub for kidnap gangs or even terrorist cells. Already there have been calls for the remote Rene Mouawad military air base in the north of the country to be opened for commercial flights. It's hardly a practical suggestion but it highlights the frustration felt by many Lebanese over what they see as Hizbollah's iron grip on Beirut.

Meanwhile, high profile Lebanese are also not taking any chances. Last year's spate of kidnappings and the apparent reluctance of the state to act firmly has emboldened many "freelancers" to advance Lebanon's reputation for entrepreneurial initiative. Already Sunni friends have told me they no longer travel to the Bekaa Valley, while those that have to go there for work now take precautions ranging from a full-on convoy bristling with ex-soldiers to low profile "old" cars so as to not draw attention to themselves.

"There is a list," confided a wealthy Syrian-Lebanese. "I don't know if my name is on it, but I'm not taking any chances. I vary my routine and come to work with a different driver in a different car every day."

One online wag has even suggested that Lebanese banks propose ransom loans should the unthinkable happen. It would be funny if it didn't sound perfectly normal in this crazy country.

 

Michael Karam is a Beirut-based freelance writer

Published: August 20, 2013 04:00 AM

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