BEIRUT — Armed Shiite clansmen in Lebanon said Wednesday they had captured more than 20 Syrians and will hold them until one of their relatives seized by rebels inside Syria is freed. The tensions were a stark reminder of how easily Syria's civil war could spill over to neighboring states.
Lebanon is deeply divided between supporters and opponents of President Bashar Assad's regime. The country, which was devastated by its own 15-year civil war that Syria was deeply involved in, has witnessed clashes between pro- and anti-Syrian groups over the past months, mostly in the northern city of Tripoli.
Syrian rebels have adopted a new tactic recently of seizing prisoners from countries or foreign groups allied with the regime to rattle Assad and his allies outside the country. In May, Syrian rebels captured 11 Lebanese Shiites shortly after they crossed from Turkey on their way to Lebanon. Earlier this month, rebels abducted 48 Iranians near the capital Damascus.
The Syrian rebels are predominantly Sunni whereas Assad and his inner circle are dominated by Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
The Lebanese prisoner in Syria, Hassane Salim al-Mikdad, appeared in a video released by rebels over the past few days. He said he is a member of Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militant group allied with predominantly Shiite Iran and with Syria. The captive, who appeared to have bruises on his face, said he was sent to Syria to fight with Assad regime forces.
Hezbollah denied al-Mikdad is a member and his family claimed he has been living in Syria for more than a year.
Abu Ali al-Mikdad, a relative, told reporters in Beirut Wednesday that his Shiite clan has abducted "more than 20 Syrians" including a senior member of the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA).
Later Wednesday, the Beirut-based TV station Al-Mayadeen aired a video purporting to show two of the abducted Syrians who said they are members of the FSA. One of them identified himself as Capt. Mohammed and said his job was to supply the FSA with arms and fighters.
"I call them (FSA) upon to free the prisoners they are holding because they are innocent," said one of the two captured men shown on TV who identified himself as Maher Hassan Rabih.