Fears are mounting that the kidnap of 11 Lebanese Shia pilgrims in Syria last week could destabilise Lebanon if its own Shia population seeks to carry out revenge attacks on Sunni Muslims.
On Thursday Syrian rebels in Aleppo province said in a statement that the Lebanese hostages were with them and were “in good health”, Al Jazeera reported. The pilgrims were taken in northern Syria, in an area held by the largely Sunni opposition to Bashar al-Assad’s regime, as they travelled back home by bus from Iran.
Government efforts to have the pilgrims freed have intensified after their expected release last week failed to take place. Activists now say that the kidnappers’ demands have changed: instead of money and weapons, they want prisoners to be released from Syrian jails.
The fate of the pilgrims highlights how closely interwoven Lebanese and Syrian politics are and the complex web of sectarian regional politics in which the Syrian uprising is now entangled.
“If these people are dead in Syria we’ve got problems in Beirut, there’s no question about it,” said one resident of the Lebanese capital’s southern suburbs controlled by Hizbollah.
The kidnap followed several days of bloody sectarian clashes in north Lebanon. After news of the kidnap broke, protesters set fire to tyres on roads in the southern suburbs of Beirut. Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, the elusive leader of the militant group Hizbollah, emerged from hiding to appeal for calm on the group’s TV station.
Hizbollah and the country’s Sunni political establishment are desperate to avoid another descent into civil war such as the one that ravaged the country between 1975 and 1990. The Hizbollah-backed government has appealed to international supporters of the Syrian opposition, such as Qatar and Turkey, to help get the hostages released.
At the end of last week, the mediation efforts appeared to have paid off when the Lebanese government announced the hostages had been released. Politicians from across Lebanon’s sectarian faultline came together as it was reported that Saad Hariri, the leader of the opposition and de facto head of Lebanon’s Sunni community, had donated his plane to fly the hostages back.
However, the hostages were not released.
The activists involved in the mediation efforts say that the hostages are now spread out across different units of the group, making a military rescue attempt problematic. Some Lebanese Shia have threatened to kidnap members of the Syrian opposition in Lebanon if the pilgrims are not freed , activists say.
“There are already tensions in Lebanon without the hostages and there is no question that failure to release them will augment Lebanon’s tensions,” said Hilal Khashan, a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut.
But he added: “Hizbollah’s leadership will not allow a doomsday scenario to unfold.”
● A reported Russian arms shipment to Syria was “reprehensible” although it did not break any laws, Susan Rice, US ambassador to the UN, said on Thursday.
“It is not technically obviously a violation of international law … but it’s reprehensible that arms would continue to flow to a regime that is using such horrific and disproportionate force against its own people,” she said.
Ms Rice also dismissed a Syrian government inquiry into the massacre in Houla, in which Damascus blamed the rebels for killing 108 people, as “blatant lie”.