US-backed rebels in Syria say they have captured Iranian nationals and are holding them. The Iranian government says they are pilgrims in Syria for religious purposes. , a photo by Pan-African News Wire File Photos on Flickr.
August 15, 2012
Syria Conflict Spills into Lebanon with Rash of Abductions
By DAMIEN CAVE and DALAL MAWAD
New York Times
BEIRUT, Lebanon — Spillover from the Syrian conflict hit Lebanon in a frightening new way on Wednesday with a mass abduction of more than 20 Syrians inside Lebanese territory, which their captors called revenge for the kidnapping of a Lebanese relative by rebels inside Syria.
The captors of the Syrians, who were displayed in a video shown on Lebanese television, threatened to go on an extended kidnapping spree inside Lebanon until their family member was set free.
While the circumstances of the kidnappings were in dispute, the events nonetheless spread panic across Lebanon, which has been increasingly vulnerable to violence reverberating from Syria since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began nearly 18 months ago. Extended families with differing allegiances straddle both countries, and the use of hostages signaled the rise of abduction as a tactic by antagonists in the conflict.
Fears of further abductions, especially in Lebanon, were seen in extra security precautions taken in Beirut. By Wednesday afternoon, according to Lebanese officials, additional guards had been assigned to the embassies of Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, the main allies of the Syrian insurgency.
In interviews with reporters here in Lebanon, the family of the kidnapped Lebanese man, Hassane Salim al-Mikdad, said that they had taken the hostages to avenge the abduction of their relative in Damascus on Monday.
His rebel captors, in an online video posted that night said he was a sniper from Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militant group, sent to Syria to supportloyalists of Mr. Assad, a close Hezbollah ally. Hezbollah denied that Mr. Mikdad was a member, and his family said he had moved to Damascus to escape personal debts.
The family, part of a powerful Shiite tribe in the Bekaa Valley near the Syrian border, said that it did not intend to accelerate the Syrian war’s spread beyond its borders. They described the abductions as personal and tribal.
“We don’t want to get into a conflict,” one relative said in an interview with al Mayadeen, the pan Arab television network based in Beirut, as a dozen camouflaged men with automatic weapons could be seen surrounding the hostages which the captors said were members of the Free Syrian Army. “We just want to get him released.”
The Free Syrian Army has denied having anything to do with the kidnapping of Mr. Mikdad in Damascus, but soon after the Mikdad family announced its own kidnappings, another Lebanese family said its son had been kidnapped in Syria. The abductions followed the seizure in May of 11 Lebanese men described by their families as pilgrims returning from Shiite shrines in Iraq.
Several analysts said the most recent abductions may just be the beginning.
“I believe this will whet the appetites of other families whose members were kidnapped in Syria, it will encourage them to kidnap Syrians, because so far they haven’t,” said Talal Atrissi, an analyst in Beirut. “This is still a conflict limited to tribes and families but the more kidnappings there are, the more the security situation will degrade. We could be heading toward chaos and an uncontrollable security situation.”
The kidnappings in Lebanon came as fighting inside Syria was punctuated by shellings and clashes in several cities. The day in Damascus began with a large blast.
Explosives hidden in a diesel tanker truck detonated behind a hotel used by the dwindling United Nations mission in Damascus, which is scheduled to leave in less than a week unless its mandate is extended. The hotel is situated near a Syrian military depot. Syria’s state news agency SANA, reported that an “explosive device, attached to a diesel tank,” had exploded behind the Damascus hotel, causing injuries.
The agency, SANA, published photographs of a tanker truck seemingly cut in two by the blast, with fire service officers hosing it down. Several cars parked nearby seemed to have been damaged.
Juliette Touma, a spokeswoman for the United Nations mission, said: “I can confirm that around 8:05 a.m. there was an explosion outside the Dama Rose hotel, where the U.N. members stay. I can confirm that none of the U.N. members were injured.”
A rebel brigade in Damascus took responsibility for the bombing, arguing that the blast targeted the military complex not the hotel.
The explosion sent up a huge plume of smoke in the hotel parking lot.
The ability of the insurgents to plant the explosives appeared to reflect a breakdown in securitys that would once have been unthinkable in the Syrian capital before the revolt beginning in March 2011 began to challenge and undermine the iron control of the Assad dynasty.
The blast appeared to be at least the third bomb attack of the past two weeks. On Sunday the authorities reported that two bombs went off simultaneously in an upscale area of the capital, with one detonated remotely as a group of soldiers passed by.
On Tuesday. Syria’s former prime minister, the highest-ranking member of the Syrian government to defect since the uprising began, said Mr. Assad’s grip on power was crumbling.
“Based on my experience and my position, the regime is falling apart morally, materially, economically,” the former prime minister, Riyad FaridHijab, said at a news conference in Amman, Jordan. The official fled the country last week, and the news conference was his first public appearance since his defection. “Its military is rusting, and it only controls 30 percent of Syria’s territory.”
He added that many high-level civilian and military officials in Syria — “leaders with dignity” — were waiting to defect. And he urged the opposition to unify and move ahead with plans for a transitional government and “a civilian democratic state that preserves the right, justice and dignity of all Syrians.”
But he said he had no interest in a formal position with a post-Assad government, should there be one. “I have sacrificed myself in the campaign of righteousness,” he said. “I don’t want to satisfy anyone but God.”
Mr. Hijab’s repudiation of the Assad government was welcomed in Washington, where the Treasury Department removed his name from a blacklist of high Syrian officials whose assets have been frozen by American sanctions. In a statement announcing Mr. Hijab’s removal from the blacklist, the Treasury Department said it hoped that other Syrian officials would take “similarly courageous steps to reject the Assad regime and stand with the Syrian people.”
Mr. Hijab explained his defection as a response to the government’s threats against his family, and to his conclusion that the Assad government had no reasonable means to end the violence.
His claims about the weakness of the Assad government could not be independently verified, and he gave few details to support his harsh assessment. Mr. Hijab, a Sunni technocrat from the eastern city of Deir al-Zour — which has been enduring shelling and fighting for weeks — was not a member of Mr. Assad’s inner circle, and he was appointed to the position of prime minister only in June.
Reporting was contributed by Hwaida Saad from Antakya, Turkey, Alan Cowell from London, and Rick Gladstone from New York.