Sectarian tensions escalated across Lebanon on Thursday as Sunnis in border towns threatened Shiites after several Shiite families who had already abducted more than 30 Syrians added several more to their hostage total.
The expanded kidnapping wave occurred as the war in Syria staggered on — with battles in Aleppo and dozens of bodies found in a landfill outside the Syrian capital, Damascus, according to activists — and it suggested that the threat of regional chaos was increasing.
Lebanon has long been a country where international rivalries play out, and Lebanese security officials said Thursday that Syria’s 17-month-old conflict had pushed Beirut and the border regions closer to civil strife.
“It’s a very critical moment,” said one senior security official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the heightened tensions. “We are open to the fact that there are going to be surprises.”
Those surprises Thursday included more kidnappings. A group of Shiites from the Al Zeeiter tribe told reporters Thursday that they had kidnapped four members of the Free Syrian Army from hospitals in the Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon, which borders Syria. Another tribe in the area, according to local media reports, kidnapped four other rebel fighters just across the border inside Syria.
The abductions on Thursday came a day after members of the powerful Mikdad family abducted close to 40 Syrians to avenge the kidnapping of a relative, Hassan Salim al-Mikdad, who was kidnapped by Syrian rebels on Monday.
The families of 11 other Lebanese hostages held inside Syria have also kidnapped several Syrians, after conflicting news reports suggested that some or all the Lebanese hostages had been killed by a Syrian airstrike. On Thursday, their fate was still not clear.
And while the Mikdads told reporters on Thursday that they had stopped taking hostages, the cycle of tit-for-tat abductions seemed to be spreading. Residents of some Lebanese border communities said Sunnis had also threatened to start kidnapping Shiites. In a Bekaa Valley town called Chtoura, four gunmen abducted a Syrian businessman known to support the regime of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, according to The Associated Press.
There was also a major exodus from the country. A day after the embassies of Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia advised their citizens to leave Lebanon, the Lebanese national airline reported adding flights to Persian Gulf countries.
The confrontations in Lebanon coincided with another day of steady, unyielding violence across Syria.
In Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, shelling continued across several neighborhoods. The Syrian Network for Human Rights, an opposition group, reported more than a dozen people killed by artillery and airstrikes Thursday morning in Aleppo, including two children.
In a grisly sign that civilians are being targeted, opposition activists reported finding 60 bodies in the landfill of a Damascus suburb. It was not clear when the killings occurred, but the activists said the dead appeared to be victims of the Syrian military, which has been conducting house-to-house searches for opponents in several areas of the capital.
Activists also reported clashes between the regime’s forces and the Free Syrian Army in other areas on the city’s outskirts. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition group based in Britain, said the rebels were able to hit a helicopter and cause considerable damage to a tank during the fighting.
The United Nations’s top humanitarian official, Valerie Amos, said the humanitarian situation continued to worsen. “Over a million people have been uprooted and face destitution,” she said on a rare visit to Damascus, where she held a news conference. “Perhaps a million more have urgent humanitarian needs due to the widening impact of the crisis on the economy and people’s livelihoods.”
Since March, she added, the number of people in need has more than doubled, to 2.5 million. And, she said, the challenges of getting help to the vulnerable involve not just war but also financing, which she said has been lacking from international donors.
“Funding, too, is holding us back,” she said, according to a transcript of her remarks. “There is more we could be doing.”