* Assad's brother severely wounded in bomb attack -Western,
* Five Gulf states tell citizens to quit Lebanon
* Retaliatory kidnappings raise sectarian spectre over
* U.N. says 2.5 million Syrians need aid
By Dominic Evans
BEIRUT, Aug 16 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, Western and Gulf sources
said on Thursday.
While a Lebanese politician with ties to the Assads
questioned their assertion that Maher al-Assad had been badly
wounded, it would be a heavy blow to one of the main military
commanders fighting the 17-month-old insurgency.
The attack on a meeting of security chiefs in Damascus on
July 18 was confirmed to have killed four members of the
president's inner circle, including a brother-in-law. It also
emboldened the rebels to take their fight to the capital.
Though never a very visible member of the president's
entourage, Maher Assad has not been seen in public since the
bombing. His brother has restricted presidential appearances to
recorded broadcasts, leading to speculation about the
effectiveness of the Syrian leadership as the rebellion grows.
Maher 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 by the leadership.
"We heard that he lost one of his legs during the explosion,
but don't know any more," a Western diplomat told Reuters. A
Gulf source said: "He lost one of his legs. The news is true."
However, a Lebanese politician with close ties to Damascus
said he doubted whether Maher had indeed been wounded in the
attack. He said a colleague had spoken to Maher by telephone on
the day after the bombing, July 19, and the Syrian commander
gave no hint to him that he had just sustained a serious injury.
On Thursday, Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem told state
television the government was confident: "Anyone who imagines
the possibility of victory over the Syrian army is delusional,"
he said, adding that rebels in the city of Aleppo had yet to be
crushed because troops were taking care not to harm civilians.
Western powers and the Gulf Arab states have rallied behind
the rebellion against Assad's Iranian-backed government and the
talk of Maher's possible injury came as fears grew that the
conflict, which 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
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
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
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.
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 - though word at
the United Nations in New York that a new international mediator
it to be named will revive the focus on what he can achieve.
On a day that officials said the beleaguered U.N. observer
mission in Syria would finally end in days, weeks after mediator
Kofi Annan quit in despair of giving them any peace to monitor,
U.N. sources told Reuters that veteran Algerian diplomat Lakhdar
Brahimi had agreed to try and broker a solution.
In the meantime, 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.