A Shiite group in Lebanon abducted several Syrians Wednesday in what it said was retaliation for the kidnapping of one of their own. It is the latest sign that violence in war-torn Syria is spilling over borders.
More than 20 Syrians had been kidnapped by the Meqdad clan, said Maher al-Meqdad, a clansman who said his relative had been kidnapped in Damascus two days ago by the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
In a video broadcast by Lebanese TV station Al Mayadeen, two men identified as members of the FSA were shown being watched over by masked gunmen from the Meqdad clan wearing green fatigues and armed with automatic rifles.
Speaking to Reuters, Maher al-Meqdad said the abductions were in response to the capture of Hassan al-Meqdad two days ago by the FSA. The rebels had said Meqdad had been sent to Syria by Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah, one of Assad's regional allies.
Maher al-Meqdad said his relative went to Syria more than a year and a half ago - before the outbreak of the 17-month -old uprising - and had no links to the fighting that has engulfed the Middle Eastern nation.
In remarks to Lebanon's National News Agency, he said "the snowball would grow," warning "Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey and their citizens" that they, too, could be abducted unless Hassan al-Meqdad was returned safely.
One of the people abducted by the Meqdad clan on Wednesday was reported to be a Turkish businessman. A Saudi man was also said to be abducted.
The situation reached a dangerous boiling point later Wednesday, when an airstrike on the northern Syrian town of Azaz - a rebel stronghold just north of Aleppo, Syria's largest city and a major battleground in the conflict - left four Lebanese hostages dead and seven other hostages injured.
"The building they (the hostages) were in was hit ... We were able to remove seven from the wreckage," rebel commander Ahmed Ghazali told Lebanese news channel Al Jadeed. "They are wounded, and some of the injuries are serious."
Reuters reported a local doctor as saying 30 people were killed and 150 wounded when a Syrian government jet bombarded the town where Syrian rebels were holding the 11 Lebanese hostages.
It was unknown whether one of the dead or wounded was Hassan al-Meqdad.
Fighting continued throughout Syria on Wednesday, with the most intense in Damscus and Aleppo. A car bomb detonated in central Damascus earlier in the day near a government military building and a hotel used by a UN observer mission, wounding three people.
Saudi Arabia, others urge nationals to leave
Possibly in response to the Meqdad clan's kidnap threat, the Saudi Arabian government late Wednesday issued an emergency SMS alert to its citizens in the country, ordering them to "leave Lebanon immediately." No exact reason for the alert was given.
Later, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) issued a similar alert. "UAE foreign ministry asks citizens not to travel to Lebanon, and for those in Lebanon to leave immediately," the country's state news agency said in an SMS message. Qatar later followed suit.
Unconfirmed Lebanese media reports said that dozens of Syrians were kidnapped in the capital Beirut Wednesday evening, with gunmen taking to the streets in the Shiite southern suburb of Tiro.
"Some of the attackers vandalised shops, destroyed cars for sale, and kidnapped dozens of Syrians," a Lebanon National News Agency report said, calling the situation "out of control."
Syria's uprising has polarized Lebanon. Sunnis are mainly supportive of the Syrian rebels - who themselves are majority Sunni - while Shiite Hezbollah has backed Assad and the government. Part of the reasoning for Hezbollah's backing is because the minority Alawi community that the Assad family belongs to is an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
In other developments Wednesday, the United Nations expressed concern over the ongoing violence in Syria. In a new report, the world body said that Assad's government forces and their civilian shabiha militia allies had committed crimes against humanity, but rebels such as the FSA have also carried out war crimes.
"The commission found reasonable grounds to believe that government forces and the shabiha had committed the crimes against humanity of murder and of torture, war crimes and gross violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law," the report said.
In Mecca - the Saudi city that is the holiest site in Islam - delegates from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) were poised to suspend Syria from the body as a result of the bloodshed. The move comes over the objections of Iran, the Assad government's closest ally. The 57-member body's rebuke would be mostly symbolic, with little real political weight, but it would further isolates Syria from much of the Sunni-majority Islamic world. The smaller but more influential Arab League suspended Syria's membership in November 2011.
Since the March 2011 Syrian uprising began, more than 17,000 people have been killed, according to UN estimates. Opposition groups put the toll at over 20,000.
According to the UN, in addition to those internally displaced within Syria, at least 157,600 people have fled to neighboring countries. According to UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos, up to 2.5 million Syrians are currently in need of basic necessities such as food, water and shelter.
bm/ipj (AFP, dpa, Reuters)