Lebanon FM says kidnapped citizens to be freed soon as violence continues in Syria

Lebanese women kidnapped in Syria were freed and returned to Beirut by plane early Wednesday. (Reuters)

Lebanese Foreign Minister Adnan Mansur said Wednesday that a group of Lebanese Shiite Muslims kidnapped in Syria would be freed “within hours,” as violence across Syria claimed lore lives.

As many as 25 people have been killed by the Syrian forces on Tuesday across the country, Syrian activists told Al Arabiya.

Lebanon’s Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah earlier urged restraint after Tuesday’s kidnappings sparked protests by thousands of people here.

“According to information provided by an Arab country those kidnapped will be free within hours,” Mansur told al-Jadeed, a private satellite television station.

He identified the men behind the abductions as “a splinter group of the armed Syrian opposition,” but did not give details, according to AFP.

Syria’s political opposition in exile, the Syrian National Council, called on rebels in Syria on Wednesday to help secure the release of the abducted Lebanese pilgrims.

“The Syrian National Council condemns any kidnappings, assault or terrorizing of our Lebanese brothers and demands their immediate release,” an SNC statement said.

“The council calls on the officers of the Free Syrian Army... who rebelled against the repression and criminality of the regime, to do everything they can to free the Lebanese brothers,” the statement said.

However, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) on Wednesday denied abducting the Lebanese citizens inside Syria.

“The FSA is not at all responsible for the operation,” Mustafa al-Sheikh, a high-ranking FSA officer, told AFP by telephone from Istanbul.

“This is an attempt to distort the image of the FSA. The FSA does not believe in this methodology,” said Sheikh, the head of the group’s military council.

The abductions of the pilgrims - news reports put their number at between 11 and 13 - were feared to further fuel sectarian tensions in Lebanon over the revolt in neighboring Syria.

They were kidnapped as they headed home to Lebanon from a pilgrimage in Iran and the news prompted their families and thousands of supporters to pour out into the streets of Beirut’s mainly Shiite southern suburbs to demand their release.

Protesters blocked several roads, including the old airport road, with burning tires and garbage bins. The roads were reopened later in the evening.

Lebanon’s state news agency said the rebel FSA, which is seeking the overthrow of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, had abducted 13 pilgrims in northern Aleppo province.

Syrian media said an “armed terrorist gang” had kidnapped 11 Lebanese and their Syrian driver.

Nasrallah, a strong ally of the embattled regime in Damascus, appealed for calm and said his armed group was doing its utmost to ensure the safe release of the men.

“I call on everyone to show restraint,” Nasrallah said in a televised speech. “It is not acceptable for anyone to block roads or carry out violent acts.”

Nasrallah said contacts were underway with Syrian authorities and other countries in the region for a quick resolution.

“We will work day and night until those beloved are back with us,” he vowed.

Nasrallah said Hezbollah was also in contact with Prime Minister Najib Mikati, whose government is dominated by the powerful militant group.

“The Lebanese state and government have a responsibility to work toward the release of those kidnapped,” he said.

Nasrallah urged his followers not to carry out revenge attacks against Syrians in Lebanon.

Syrian state media said the kidnapping took place near the town of Aazaz, which sits along the border with Turkey. It said the men were part of a group of 53 pilgrims on board two buses.

The women were allowed to go free and returned to Beirut by plane early Wednesday.

“The Free Syrian Army (FSA) said they took them. They let women go and kept the men. They told them that they will keep them until the Syrian army releases FSA detainees,” a relative of one of the men said, according to Reuters.

“When we crossed the border around 40 gunmen stopped the bus and forced it into a nearby orchard and said women should stay on the bus and men get out,” Hayat Awali, who identified herself as a passenger, told Lebanon’s al-Jadeed TV from Aleppo.

“We told them we are only pilgrims. They said ‘take your pilgrims and go the police station in Aleppo and tell them we have prisoners there and we want them’.”

Among the pilgrims were 36 women, one of them said shortly after their arrival.

“After crossing the border between Turkey and Syria, we saw a white car pull up with men armed with Kalashnikovs inside,” she said. “They told us they wanted to protect us from Syrian shelling. Then they handcuffed the men and lined them up against a wall.”

Most women said the men presented themselves as belonging to the FSA.

“They terrorized us,” said one of them.

Hezbollah MP Mohammed Raad, who was at the airport to welcome the women, said there were signs the matter would be settled “quickly.”

Raad would not be drawn on whether rebels were behind the kidnapping when asked.

“We don’t want to go into details of who is behind the abductions to make their release easier,” he said. “We’ll deal with that later.”

Activists in Aleppo reached by AFP via Skype said Aazaz was undergoing fierce shelling Tuesday evening by regime forces who stormed the town.

The brother of one of those kidnapped said the FSA had vowed to release the men in exchange for rebels detained by Syrian authorities.

Mikati’s office said he was making the necessary contacts to ensure the release of the men.

“Prime Minister Mikati has urged families of the kidnapped to remain calm and assured them he was following the issue closely to ensure the safety of those abducted and their quick release,” a statement said.

The abductions came hours after a court released on bail an Islamist whose arrest earlier this month sparked unrest in north Lebanon between those who back the revolt against Assad, and the Syrian regime supporters.

A judicial source said Shadi al-Moulawi was released on bail of 500,000 Lebanese pounds ($333) and forbidden to leave the country, adding the charge of membership in a “terrorist” group labeled against him by a military prosecutor stood.

His arrest ushered in battles in the northern city of Tripoli between Islamist foes of Assad -- who said Moulawi was merely assisting Syrian refugees -- against the Lebanese army and supporters of Assad, and killed eight people.

Clashes between the pro- and anti-Assad camps in the country have left some 12 people dead in the past 10 days.

Damascus has said the region harbors “terrorists” with ties to al-Qaeda and the Islamist factions that dominate Syria’s fragmented political opposition, and demands Lebanon cut the flow of arms across the border to insurgents.

Nasrallah said it was necessary for all Lebanese to remain calm.

“The atmosphere is tense because of the events of recent days,” he said. “Everyone is urged not to make matters worse.”

Ex-premier Saad Hariri, who heads the anti-Assad opposition in Lebanon, denounced the kidnapping and called for the men’s immediate release.

“We condemn the kidnapping of our Lebanese brothers in Syria, regardless of the party behind the kidnapping, and we call for their immediate release,” he said in a statement.

Earlier on Tuesday, rebels in the Syrian eastern city of Deir Ezzor said Syrian police killed two people when they fired on a crowd that came out to greet U.N. monitors.

A United Nations spokeswoman said the team had heard gunfire but had not seen any casualties outside the village of al-Busaira, and that the U.N. team had sought to keep villagers following them from entering the government-controlled town.

The monitors’ mission is part of a peace plan laid out by U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan last month, which stipulates the release of political prisoners among other things as steps toward a political accord to end the violence.

A British-based opposition group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said security forces arrested dozens of people in raids on the suburbs of the capital on Tuesday, and that rebels skirmished with government troops in northern Idlib province.

There was no immediate independent confirmation of the accounts from Syria, which has restricted journalist access over the course of the uprising, the longest and one of the bloodiest episodes in a wave of mass mobilization against Arab leaders from Tunisia to Yemen over the last 18 months.

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