BEIRUT/ALEPPO (Reuters) - 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 rancor 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.
In Azaz, near the heavily contested northern economic hub of Aleppo, bombing by Assad’s air force killed 30 people according to a local doctor and wounded scores more as buildings were flattened. Among those hurt, a rebel commander said, were seven Lebanese being held captive, while a further four were missing.
Assad’s forces have increasingly been using their air power against the lightly armed insurgents - a tactic which featured in fresh accusations of war crimes leveled by United Nations human rights investigators on Wednesday.
They said rebels had also committed war crimes, but the violations “did not reach the gravity, frequency and scale” of those by state forces and the pro-Assad shabbiha militia.
Last month, Assad’s troops successfully counter-attacked after rebels seized parts of Damascus. They are still trying to dislodge insurgents from Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city.
A Syrian air strike has wrecked a hospital in a rebel-held area of Aleppo, a doctor there said on Wednesday, an attack that New York-based Human Rights Watch said violated international law. At least two holes gaped in the walls of Al Shifaa Hospital and four floors were heavily damaged by Tuesday’s raid.
Most Western and Arab governments have called on Assad to go, saying his government’s violent response to initially peaceful protests give him no place in a future Syria.
Russia has opposed tougher U.N. sanctions against Damascus, a long-time strategic ally, but denies it is actively helping Assad remain in power. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused Western governments of reneging on a deal among world powers made on June 30 to push for a transitional government in Syria.
Washington shot back that it was Russia and China which had blocked efforts to pass a U.N. Security Council resolution.
Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati condemned the kidnappings, but his government seemed largely powerless to act.
“This,” he said, “brings us back to the days of the painful war, a page that Lebanese citizens have been trying to turn.”
Saudi Arabia “called on Saudi citizens currently in Lebanon to leave immediately given the latest developments in Lebanon and the appearance of some explicit threats to abduct Saudi citizens and others”, the Saudi state news agency said.
A diplomat said the Turkish businessman had been kidnapped shortly after arriving in Lebanon on Wednesday: “He was here for business, arrived today, and was kidnapped near the airport.”
Air France diverted one of its planes away from Beirut on Wednesday evening for “security reasons” after the kidnappings. The road from the airport has regularly been blocked by protesting families of Lebanese being held in Syria.
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.
A clan member said the detained Syrians included an army lieutenant who had deserted to join the rebels. He added that Syrians who were not rebel fighters had been freed.
One of the detainees, shown looking tense in a room full of gunmen, identified himself as a captain and said his role was to help supply the FSA. The other man said he was his assistant.
The rebels in Damascus had accused their captive, Hassan al-Meqdad, of being sent to Syria by Hezbollah to aid Assad.
Additional reporting by Tom Perry, Issam Abdullah and Erika Solomon in Beirut; Writing by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Myra MacDonald