Lebanese pilgrims kidnapped in Syria are released
BEIRUT (AP) — A group of Lebanese Shiites who were kidnapped in Syria were released in good health Friday, three days after Syrian rebels abducted the men as they returned from a religious pilgrimage, officials said.
The kidnappings fueled fears that Lebanon is getting drawn into the bloody conflict in neighboring Syria. In the hours after Tuesday's abductions, protests erupted in Beirut's Shiite-dominated southern suburbs, where residents burned tires and blocked roads.
Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati confirmed the men were released, saying they were "in good health and on their way to Beirut." The pilgrims were believed to have been returning from a pilgrimage to holy sites in Iran when they were abducted.
The hostages were believed to be 11 Lebanese and one Syrian driver.
Lebanese and Syrian officials have blamed Syrian rebels for the kidnappings.
Sunnis form the backbone of the Syrian revolt, which has unleashed seething sectarian tensions. Syrian President Bashar Assad and the country's ruling elite belong to the tiny Alawite sect, which is an offshoot of Shiism.
Lebanon's powerful Shiite militant group Hezbollah has stood by Assad as he struggles to put down a 15-month-old uprising. The group's leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, was expected to give a speech later Friday to mark the 2000 withdrawal of Israeli troops from southern Lebanon.
The kidnappings came at a time of deep tension in Lebanon over Syria. The countries share a complex web of political and sectarian ties and rivalries, which can quickly turn violent.
Clashes linked to the conflict in Syria have killed at least 10 people in Lebanon the past two weeks.
Syria had troops on the ground in Lebanon for nearly 30 years until 2005 and still has strong ties to Lebanon's security services.
Also Friday, Syrian forces fired tear gas and live ammunition to disperse thousands of protesters calling for Assad's ouster Friday, killing two people in the northern city of Aleppo.
Crackdowns on protests, as well as other government and rebel attacks, are routine despite the deployment of more than 250 U.N. observers who have fanned out around Syria to monitor a cease-fire brokered by international envoy by Kofi Annan.
Despite the daily violations, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Thursday that there was no "plan B" for the Annan initiative.
Friday's violence during weekly anti-government protests was reported by the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has a network of activists on the ground, and by the opposition Local Coordination Committees.
The Observatory said one person was killed and another wounded in Aleppo, a major economic hub which has remained largely supportive of Assad throughout the uprising but where anti-regime sentiment has been on the rise in recent weeks.
Aleppo-based activist Mohammad Saeed said one of the protesters later died of his wounds, raising the number of those killed in the city's Boustan al-Qasr district to two.
He said more than 10,000 people were protesting in the city.
"The regime is desperately trying to put down the protests in Aleppo but all this violence will backfire," he said.
"Down, down, down. Down with Bashar Assad," the protesters shouted as they marched in the Salaheddine district.
Amateur videos posted online by activists showed several wounded people, including a teenage girl, being carried away by other protesters.