Mass kidnapping in Lebanon

Damascus, Syria. Picture: AFP
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ALEPPO - Saudi Arabia has told citizens to leave Lebanon after a mass kidnapping in retaliation for events in Syria raised fears that violence may be spilling across a region riven by sectarian and great power rivalries.

On a day when Lebanese captives held by Syrian rebels were among the wounded in a deadly air strike by government forces, citizens of Turkey and Saudi Arabia, key backers of the mainly Sunni Muslim insurgency, were seized along with about 20 Syrians by Beirut Shi'ites in an area run by Iranian-backed Hezbollah.

Their threat to take more Saudi, Turkish and Qatari hostages to secure the release of a kinsman held by Syrian rebels in Damascus bore ominous echoes of still deeply polarized Lebanon's own, long civil war - and Gulf Arab governments lost no time in urging visitors to leave Beirut's popular summer tourist haunts.

"The snowball will grow," warned Hatem al-Meqdad, a senior member of the powerful Lebanese Shi'ite Meqdad family who said his brother was detained by the Free Syrian Army two days ago.

Syrian President Bashar al-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 sympathize 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.

On Wednesday, the Meqdad clan said it was holding more than 20 people, including a Saudi, a Turkish businessman and several Syrians they described as anti-Assad fighters. Its action was a blow to a Lebanese economy for which Gulf tourists have played a part in recovery after 15 years of civil war ended in 1990.

"We still haven't even done one percent; we still haven't really moved," said a man who told reporters late on Wednesday in Beirut's Hezbollah-controlled Dahiya district that he and his fellow masked gunmen from the Meqdad clan's "military wing" were ready to take more action against Syrian rebels in Lebanon.

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 engaged in advancing their strategic interests while the world powers are deadlocked by a split over Syria between Russia and the West.

Against that backdrop, the bloodshed in Syria continues.