Kidnapping of Lebanese pilgrims in Syria heightens tension


The Syrian conflict took a broader turn in the region on Tuesday after Syrian rebels reportedly kidnapped 13 Lebanese Shiite Muslims as they were headed home by bus from a pilgrimage in Iran.

Lebanon’s state news agency said the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA), which is fighting to overthrow the regime of Bashar al-Assad, had abducted 13 pilgrims in northern Aleppo province.

Syrian media put the number of abductees at 12.

The news of the kidnappings prompted their families and thousands of supporters to pour out into the streets in 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.

“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.

“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'.”

FSA spokesmen could not be reached for comment late Tuesday.

The protests were linked to the weekend killings of two clerics at an army checkpoint in Akkar, a mainly Sunni region whose inhabitants are hostile to Assad.

The killings ignited street battles in the capital Beirut on Monday that left two people dead and 18 wounded.

Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the Shiite movement Hezbollah, which dominates the Lebanese government, went on television to urge restraint and said his party was doing its utmost to ensure the safe release of those kidnapped.

“I call on everyone to show restraint,” Nasrallah said in an address carried on the party’s Al-Manar television. “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.

He added that Hezbollah was also in contact with Prime Minister Najib Mikati, whose office said he was making the necessary contacts to ensure the release of the Lebanese abducted.

Raids continue

In Syria itself, security forces carried out a spate of raids in Damascus after a deadly bombing hit the capital and U.N. chief Ban Ki-Moon warned the search for peace was at a “pivotal moment.”

State television said the late Monday blast hit a restaurant in the Qaboon neighborhood of the capital, with the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights saying five people were killed.

The bloodshed raged despite the deployment of a U.N. military observer mission to oversee a promised ceasefire that has been breached daily since it went into force on April 12.

Gunfire erupted as a team of observers visited the town of Busayra in Deir Ezzor province in the northeast, activists reached by Skype told AFP.

“Unconfirmed reports indicate there are two dead and several wounded,” one activist said.

The Observatory also said there were fierce clashes between troops and rebels in the town of Kfar Roma in Idlib province in the northwest, with four soldiers killed.

And it said regime helicopter gunships reportedly opened fire in certain parts of Idlib, wounding an unknown number of people.

Demonstrations broke out at dawn in several neighborhoods of Aleppo, the country’s second city and commercial hub which until recently had been largely spared the unrest shaking the country since March 2011.

One person was killed by gunfire in Nouaymeh, a town in the southern province of Daraa, the Observatory said.