By Dominic Evans
BEIRUT, Aug 16 (Reuters) - President Bashar al-Assad's feared brother Maher lost a leg in a bomb attack on the Syrian leader's security cabinet a month ago, sources said on Thursday, in a severe blow to one of the main military commanders fighting a 17-month-old insurgency.
The attack on a meeting of Assad's security chiefs in Damascus on July 18 killed four members of the president's inner circle, including his brother-in-law, and emboldened the rebels to take their fight to the capital for the first time.
Maher has not been seen in public since the bombing, while Assad himself has restricted appearances to recorded clips broadcast on television, leading to speculation about the effectiveness of the leadership as the rebellion grows.
Maher, a close associate of the president, has acquired a fearsome reputation as the commander of the Syrian army's Republican Guard and 4th Division, elite formations largely composed of troops from the Assads' minority Alawite sect, whose loyalty can be relied on in the fight against the rebels.
"We heard that he (Maher al-Assad) lost one of his legs during the explosion, but don't know any more," a Western diplomat told Reuters.
A Gulf source confirmed the report: "He lost one of his legs. The news is true."
The disclosure of Maher's injury came as fears grew that the conflict that has already claimed the lives of at least 18,000 people in Syria was starting to spill over its borders into a region already torn by sectarian divisions.
Gulf Arab states told their citizens to leave Lebanon after a Lebanese Shi'ite clan kidnapped more than 20 people in Beirut and initially threatened to seize more Arab nationals.
The gunmen said a Turkish hostage, whose country is a key backer of Syria's mainly Sunni Muslim insurgency, would be the first to die if one of their kinsmen held by Syrian rebels in Damascus were killed.
The powerful Meqdad family is seeking to put pressure on rebels to release clan member Hassan al-Meqdad, who has been held by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) for two days.
An earlier threat by the kidnappers to seize Saudis, Turks and Qataris to secure the release of their kinsman bore ominous echoes of Lebanon's own civil war - and Arab governments lost no time in urging visitors to leave Beirut's popular summer tourist haunts.
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain all told their nationals to leave at once. Some nations have already begun flying their citizens home.
"The snowball will grow," warned Hatem al-Meqdad, a senior member of the Meqdad family who said his brother Hassan was detained by the FSA two days ago.
Assad, whose Alawite minority is an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, has long relied on support from Shi'ite Iran and its Hezbollah allies.
He accuses the Sunni powers of the Gulf and Turkey of promoting the revolt against him, which grew out of Arab Spring demonstrations 18 months ago.
While his opponents, and the Western powers which sympathise with them, insist they want to avoid the kind of sectarian blood-letting seen in Iraq, rebels who mostly come from Syria's disadvantaged Sunni majority have seized Iranians and Lebanese there in recent weeks, saying they may be working for Assad.
The kidnapping by the Meqdad clan on Wednesday will damage a Lebanese economy for which Gulf tourists have played a part in recovery after 15 years of civil war ended in 1990.
Maher al-Meqdad, the clan's spokesman, said they were only targeting the Free Syrian Army and Turks, insisting that Saudis, Qataris and other Gulf nationals were not targets.
"If Hassan (al-Meqdad) is killed, the first hostage we will kill is the Turk," he told Reuters. He later said the clan had "halted military operations", signalling it would stage no further abductions.
The Turkish hostage told a Lebanese television channel he was being treated well. Another station broadcast footage it said showed two Syrian hostages in the custody of masked gunmen from the Meqdad clan wearing fatigues and armed with rifles.
Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati condemned the kidnappings, but his government seemed largely powerless to act.
"This brings us back to the days of the painful war, a page that Lebanese citizens have been trying to turn," he said.
Fighting in Syria has triggered violence across the border before - some of it linked to Syrian rebels bringing arms and supplies across Lebanon.
But the round of hostage-taking on both sides adds a new factor for regional states, who are advancing their strategic interests while Russia and the West are deadlocked by their deep divisions over Syria.
At a meeting in Saudi Arabia, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation suspended Syria on Thursday, citing Assad's suppression of the Syrian revolt, but there was little support for direct military involvement.
The 57-member body's rebuke is mostly symbolic, but it shows Syria's isolation - as well as that of its ally Iran - across much of the Sunni-majority Islamic world.
Later, Al-Arabiya television reported that a cousin of Syrian Vice President Farouk al-Shara had defected and was calling on members of the Syrian army to join the "revolution".
China used a visit to Beijing by a special envoy from Assad to repeat its call for the Syrian government to talk with the opposition and take steps to meet the people's demand for change, but offered no new solutions.
Talks seem unlikely in the near future while the rebels insist Assad must step down as a precondition for negotiations and government troops are pounding rebel forces.
The price being paid by the Syrian people was underlined by the U.N. humanitarian chief, Valerie Amos, who said that as many of 2.5 million people, about one tenth of the population, were in need of aid.
Speaking in Syria where she met Prime Minister Wael al-Halki this week, Amos said: "Back in March, we estimated that a million people were in need of help. Now as many as 2.5 million are in need of assistance and we are working to update our plans and funding requirements."
France24 correspondents Matthieu Mabin and Sofia Amara report from the front lines of a rebel offensive against the Syrian army in Damascus.
Watch the exclusive report in the video below.
Clashes between Assad supporters and opponents of the Syrian regime killed two people in Lebanon on Friday, the Associated Press reports. 17 people were injured.The AP gives more context:
Syria was in virtual control of its smaller neighbor for many years, posting tens of thousands of troops in Lebanon, before withdrawing under pressure in 2005. Even without soldiers on the ground, Syria remains influential, and its civil war has stirred longstanding tensions that have lain under Lebanon's surface.
Read more on HuffPost World.
|@ KenRoth : UN reports 200,000 #Syria refugees, 30,000 in past week alone. Many more internally displaced not counted. http://t.co/BaM6u59j|
Helicopter gunships shelled Damascus on Wednesday as Syrian security forces intensified their assault on the capital. Activists report that at least 47 people were killed.
"The whole of Damascus is shaking with the sound of shelling," a woman in the neighborhood of Kfar Souseh told Reuters.
Read more on HuffPost World.
|@ jenanmoussa : Graphic. We saw in a mosque in #Syria these 4 children staring at dead body. Pic by @HaraldDoornbos: http://t.co/lgq8IAmO #warsucks @akhbar|
Activists say that Syrian security forces swept through two districts in Damascus on Wednesday, killing at least 31 suspected opposition fighters. The Associated Press reports that the army may have been targeting rebel teams that had been using the Nahr Eishah and Kfar Soussa neighborhoods to shell a nearby military airport.
Read more on HuffPost World.
|@ AP : Russia says Western powers are "openly instigating" opposition groups in Syria: http://t.co/Il6rHsxr -SC|