Syria kidnap triggers alarm over Lebanon
BEIRUT (Reuters) - The kidnap by Syrian gunmen of Lebanese Shi'ite pilgrims caused international allies and adversaries of President Bashar al-Assad to sound an alarm on Wednesday about a spread of sectarian violence across Syria's borders.
As the Lebanese government tried to calm protests by Shi'ite families by saying that it expected the dozen men seized in Aleppo on Tuesday to be free "very soon", both Saudi Arabia, a Sunni Muslim foe of Assad, and Russia, which has defended him, warned that Syria's strife could reignite civil war in Lebanon.
"There is now ... a real threat of the conflict spilling over into Lebanon," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters in Moscow. "Given the history and ethnic and religious make-up of the population, and the principles on which the Lebanese state is based, it could end very badly."
"Saudi Arabia is deeply concerned," King Abdullah wrote in an open letter to Lebanon's President Michel Suleiman. "Due to the gravity of the crisis and the possibility of it causing sectarian strife in Lebanon and bringing it back to the shadow of civil war, we are looking to your ... attempts to intervene to end the crisis ... and keep Lebanon away from foreign struggles, especially with the Syrian crisis nearby."
Syrian rebels play down the sectarian element in their 15-month-old uprising. But the spread of Sunni-Shi'ite violence in Lebanon this past week have highlighted how the conflict largely opposes Syria's Sunni majority and Assad's Alawites, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam whose leaders have allied with Shi'ite Iran.
Within a wider confrontation across the Middle East, pitting the mostly Sunni Arabs led by the likes of Saudi Arabia against non-Arab Iran and its Shi'ite and other Arab allies, the Syrian fighting has raised fears of a prolonged spread of violence.
Families of the Lebanese Shi'ites seized as travelled back from Iran through northern Syria blocked roads in mainly Shi'ite neighborhoods of Beirut, demanding the release of men they said were held by Sunni rebels. Syria's main rebel groups distanced themselves from the shadowy group holding the pilgrims.
Relatives of those held said fighters in Aleppo stopped a bus and let women and old men go but kept 13 male pilgrims to pressure Assad to free captured comrades. Syria's state news agency SANA said there were 12 captives, one of them a Syrian.
The kidnapping follows clashes in Lebanon's two main cities between supporters and opponents of Assad.
Lebanese Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour told Reuters an Arab mediator hoped to secure the release of the men soon: "The matter is ongoing," he said, "And, God willing, we're going to reach a positive result."
Syria's political opposition in exile, the Syrian National Council, called on rebels in Syria to help secure their release.
"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," an SNC statement said.
Opposition groups within Syria say that Assad has stirred sectarian tensions to divide and rule, and to discourage Arab and Western powers from trying to intervene against him in the way they helped topple Muammar Gaddafi in Libya last year.
Portraying his enemies as "terrorists" and holding out the prospect of their actions turning Syria into a sectarian nightmare like Iraq, Assad has retained the loyalty, albeit often grudging, of substantial parts of the Syrian population, including other religious and ethnic minorities.
Russia's Lavrov said: "Disagreements between Sunnis and Shi'ites are starting to be laid bare and artificially aggravated. This is a very dangerous development."
Taking a swipe at the Western and Arab powers which have backed the Syrian rebels - Moscow says it wants a negotiated solution involving Assad - the foreign minister said some nations had a "hidden agenda" for "regime change" and added:
"I hope all responsible members of the international community, Islamic nations, Western nations and all the rest will draw the right conclusions and can stop in time."
The unrest in Syria has crippled the country's economy, and on Wednesday oil minister Sufian Alao said the Syrian oil industry had lost around $4 billon since European Union governments agreed on September 2 to ban imports. European states used to buy some 90 percent of the country's oil exports.
Imports have also been blockaded, causing further problems. Alao said a Venezuelan oil tanker with 35,000 tonnes of diesel fuel had docked in Syria this week and another was being prepared. While exporting oil, Syria imports refined products.
Ship tracking data on Reuters shows that the Negra Hipolita, which is managed by state oil firm PDVSA, left Venezuela at the start of May and docked at the Syrian port of Banias this week.
Venezuela's anti-Western leader, President Hugo Chavez, has in the past offered Assad his solidarity against the "imperial aggression" of "the Yankee empire and its European allies".
The oil minister said domestic production of diesel covered around 50 percent of the country's needs and "there are discussions to secure materials from Iran and Algeria".
A joint Russia-Syrian committee is also looking at the possibility of "concluding a long-term contract with Russia to supply diesel and cooking gas", SANA quoted Alao as saying.
Violence has continued sporadically in Syria despite a ceasefire last month brokered by the United Nations and Arab League. The United Nations says Assad's forces have killed at least 9,000 people since the uprising started in March 2011. The government says armed opposition groups have killed about 2,600 soldiers and members of the security forces.
(Additional reporting by Oliver Holmes in Beirut, Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Amman, Daniel Fineren, Steve Gutterman in Moscow and Rania El Gamal in Dubai; Writing by Oliver Holmes; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)
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