Syrian refugees stream into Lebanon, with violence at their heels

August 17, 2012

Zeina Karam, Associated Press and Worldview

A powerful Shiite Muslim clan in Lebanon on Thursday claimed to have abducted more Syrian nationals and vowed further kidnappings in retaliation for the seizure of a family member by rebels in Syria this week, as Syria's civil war threatened to break open violent rivalries in its neighbor Lebanon.

The wave of kidnappings raises the dire scenario that the battle for control over Syria will ignite tensions in Lebanon, a country with its own history of civil war, an explosive sectarian mix and deep divisions between pro- and anti-Syrian factions — many of them armed.

Already, the abductions have brought gunmen from both the Shiite and Sunni communities into the streets. On Wednesday, Shiite supporters of the al-Mikdad clan went on a rampage in a Beirut neighborhood, vandalizing dozens of Syrian-run stores, and then blocked the road to the airport, setting tires on fire and wandering the road with guns. Travelers were forced to walk from their cars to the airport, and at least one flight was cancelled. The road was only reopened early Thursday morning.

The tensions emerged Thursday in the eastern Bekaa Valley, near the Syrian border. Masked men believed to be from the Bekaa town of Majdal Anjar — a Sunni stronghold — burned tires and set up roadblocks on the main highway leading to the Masnaa border crossing between Lebanon and Syria. They stopped cars going either way and checked passengers' IDs before deciding whether to let them pass, apparently looking for Shiites or Mikdad supporters.

In the nearby town of Chtoura, four gunmen abducted Syrian businessman Hossam Khasroum, pulling him from his car as he was driving and taking him to an unknown location, security officials said. Khasroum, the offficials said, is known to be a support of Assad's regime.

In a separate incident, gunmen attacked a car driven by pro-Syrian Lebanese politician, Joseph Abu-Fadel, breaking his car windows with stones as he was driving to Syria. He and three others were lightly injured.

On Wednesday, armed members of the al-Mikdad clan said they had kidnapped more than 20 Syrian nationals and a Turk in Lebanon in retaliation for the abduction of their relative, Hassane Salim al-Mikdad, who was captured in Syria this week.

Rebels who kidnapped al-Mikdad claimed he was a member of the Shiite militant group Hezbollah, a staunch supporter of President Bashar Assad's regime. Hezbollah and his family deny this.

Maher al-Mikdad, a family spokesman, warned on Thursday that "if anything happens to Hassane, we will kill the Turkish hostage we have and many others. But we will start with the Turks."

Speaking to The Associated Press, he said the clan has snatched more Syrians and warned that it would go on with further kidnappings until their clansman is released. He could not give an exact number but said the clan was now holding more than 20 captives.

Lebanon's government appeared largely unable or unwilling to stop the kidnapping spree and escalating violence. Hezbollah and its allies hold a majority in the Cabinet, which has adopted a policy of "disassociation" from the events in Syria, trying to remain neutral. Hezbollah critics say it is assisting Assad in moving the conflict to Lebanon to divert attention from the deadly civil war raging in Syria.

Friday on Worldview

James Zogby, President of the Arab American Institute, explains the Lebanese stake in Syria's future and what unrest in Syria means for its displaced refugee population, and the region as a whole.