BEIRUT -- The mysterious case of 11 Lebanese Shiites who were taken hostage in Syria last week is raising fears of renewed street battles in Beirut as Lebanon increasingly gets drawn into the swirling chaos next door.
The Syrian crisis already has spilled across the border into Lebanon over the past three weeks, sparking deadly violence in a country that remains deeply divided over the 15-month-old uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad.
But the Shiites' abduction is potentially explosive, in part because it enflames Lebanon's fragile Sunni-Shiite fault line. It could also spark retaliatory attacks against the thousands of Syrians in Lebanon.
In recent days, members of Lebanon's powerful Shiite militant group, Hezbollah, have deployed at the entrances of Beirut's southern suburbs, a heavily Shiite area, to prevent any moves by angry protesters.
Hezbollah is a staunch ally of the Syrian regime, where a predominantly Sunni uprising is trying to oust the Assad family dynasty. The families of the kidnapped Shiites blame Syria's Sunni rebels for abducting the men.
"The kidnapping is clearly intended to drag Hezbollah into the Syrian quagmire," said Ziad Baalbaki, a 37-year-old Lebanese insurance broker in Beirut. "The whole thing is fishy, everyone is worried what will happen if they are not released or they turn out to be dead."
The Lebanese men were on their way back from a pilgrimage in Iran on May 22 when gunmen intercepted their buses in the northern Syrian province of Aleppo, according to the women on the pilgrimage who were allowed to go free and arrived in Lebanon hours later.
Since then, no one has claimed responsibility for the kidnapping. There were reports Friday that the hostages were about to be released, prompting a rush on the airport by family members. But the men never arrived, and it became clear the release plans went awry.
One opposition figure who said he spoke to the kidnappers told The Associated Press that the hostage takers decided not to release the men after Syrian forces began attacking rebel areas in Aleppo. Now, he said, the kidnappers are demanding Syrian authorities release 500 opposition detainees, including Lt. Col. Hussein Harmoush, one of the first officers to defect after the uprising began. Harmoush was later arrested by authorities during a special operation.
The opposition figure spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
Lebanese officials and Syrian activists have said the men are being held in an area near the Turkish border, but there is little credible information about their fate. Shiite leaders in Lebanon have scrambled to deny various rumors that might aggravate the situation – including reports that one of the hostages is related to Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah.
"The information indicates that they are alive and in good health. This is what the Syrian opposition and Turkish officials confirm," Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri told An-Nahar daily Monday.
Shortly after news of the abduction broke last Tuesday, dozens of angry protesters blocked major roads with burning tires and threatened to kidnap Syrians in Lebanon as a form of retaliation. The protesters went home only after Nasrallah went on TV, calling for calm and saying no Syrians in Lebanon should be harmed.
"They were kidnapped because they are Shiite, not for any other reason," said Mohammed Mir, a Lebanese Shiite. "Had they been returning from Haj in Saudi Arabia (a Sunni country) would anyone have dared to kidnap them?"
In the Bir el-Abed district south of Beirut on Monday, five female relatives of the kidnapped men sat silently inside the office of the religious tour agency Badr al-Kubra, which organized the pilgrimage.
The room was decorated with large posters of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Nasrallah, and the group's late military commander Imad Mughniyeh, who was assassinated in a car bomb in Damascus in 2008.
The women refused to be interviewed, saying they were worried it would hurt the negotiations taking place for the hostages' release.
The case has the potential to inflame sectarian tensions in Lebanon and trigger retaliatory attacks against tens of thousands of Syrians nationals now in Lebanon. The overwhelming majority of rebels fighting Assad's regime are Sunni Muslims, while Assad and the ruling elite in Syria belong to the tiny Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
Tensions from Syria have already spilled into Lebanon and clashes between Alawites and anti-Assad Lebanese Sunni groups in Lebanon's second largest city of Tripoli killed eight people earlier this month.
Aleppo-based activist Mohammed Saeed said the kidnappers have "impossible demands" from the regime in return for the release of the hostages, such as setting free all Aleppo province detainees and the withdrawal of the Syrian army from some areas."They are dealing with them (hostages) as if they are members of the regime," Saeed said.
U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice tweets:
|@ AmbassadorRice : #Syria regime turned artillery, tanks and helicopters on its own men & women. It unleashed knife-wielding shabiha gangs on its own children.|
Russia says international envoy Kofi Annan will visit Moscow on Monday to discuss the ongoing crisis in Syria. Russia also called for an inquiry into an alleged massacre that took place in the village of Tramseh on Thursday. "We have no doubt that this wrongdoing serves the interests of those powers that are not seeking peace but persistently seek to sow the seeds of interconfessional and civilian conflict on Syrian soil," Russia's foreign ministry said in a statement, according to Reuters. Moscow did not apportion blame for the killings.
Read more on Reuters.com.
The Associated Press obtained a video that purports to show the aftermath of an alleged massacre in the village of Tramseh, near Hama.
How do Syria's fighters get their arms? An overview put together by Reuters explains that there are three gateways to the country -- Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq.
Syrian rebels are smuggling small arms into Syria through a network of land and sea routes involving cargo ships and trucks moving through Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq, maritime intelligence and Free Syrian Army (FSA) officers say. Western and regional powers deny any suggestion they are involved in gun running. Their interest in the sensitive border region lies rather in screening to ensure powerful weapons such as surface to air missiles do not find their way to Islamist or other militants.
Read the full report here.
This citizen journalism image made from video provided by Shaam News Network SNN, purports to show a man mourning a victim killed by violence that, according to anti-regime activists, was carried out by government forces in Tremseh, Syria about 15 kilometers (nine miles) northwest of the central city of Hama, Thursday, July 12, 2012. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network, SNN)
According to the Hama Revolutionary Council, a Syrian opposition group, more than 220 people have been killed in a new alleged massacre in Taramseh. Earlier reports said more than 100 people were killed. "More than 220 people fell today in Taramseh," the Council said in a statement. "They died from bombardment by tanks and helicopters, artillery shelling and summary executions."
Fadi Sameh, an opposition activist from Taramseh, told Reuters he had left the town before the reported massacre but was in touch with residents. "It appears that Alawite militiamen from surrounding villages descended on Taramseh after its rebel defenders pulled out, and started killing the people. Whole houses have been destroyed and burned from the shelling," Sameh claimed.
Read more on Reuters.com.
Syrian activist Rami Jarrah tweets that Syrian State TV has confirmed deaths in Tremseh. "Terrorists" is often the term used by the Syrian regime for opposition forces.
|@ AlexanderPageSY : Syrian State TV: clashes between security apparatus & terrorists in #Tremseh of #Hama leaves large numbers of terrorists killed #Syria|
|@ Reuters : UPDATE: DEATH TOLL IN SYRIAN FORCES' ATTACK ON VILLAGE IN SYRIA'S HAMA REGION IS MORE THAN 200, MOSTLY CIVILIANS - OPPOSITION ACTIVISTS|