Syria rebels demand Hezbollah apology to free Lebanese

BEIRUT Thu May 31, 2012 4:15pm EDT

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BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian rebels said they were holding a group of kidnapped Lebanese Shi'ite Muslim pilgrims, and accused some of the hostages of opposing their revolution against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, news channel Al Jazeera reported on Thursday.

The insurgents added they would not start negotiations for the release of the hostages until the leader of Lebanese guerilla group Hezbollah, an ally of Assad's, apologized for a recent speech.

The rebel Revolutionary Council in Aleppo did not give any more details on their plans for the captives, or spell out what had offended them in the speech by Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah.

The group of about a dozen Lebanese men was on a bus that was stopped by gunmen in the northern Syrian province of Aleppo earlier this month.

"During questioning it emerged that a group of them had a hand in (oppressing the revolt) so it was decided to keep them for a while," rebel group spokesman Abo Abdullah al-Halabi told Al Jazeera. The men were all in good health, he added.

Syria's president Assad, who belongs to an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, has been trying to crush a 14-month revolt led by fighters from the country's Sunni Muslim majority.

There have been fears of the turmoil spilling over the border into neighboring Lebanon, also driven by sectarian tensions and divided between foes and friends of the revolt in Syria.

Upon hearing the news of their capture residents of the southern suburb of Beirut, a Hezbollah stronghold where the hostages live, took to the streets in anger, burned tires and blocked roads.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah appealed for calm and in a speech said the kidnapping would not affect his group's allegiances in Syria.

Syrian rebels have accused Hezbollah of sending fighters to help Assad, a charge dismissed by Hezbollah.

(Reporting by Mariam Karouny; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

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