BEIRUT: At least 16 Lebanese men returning from a pilgrimage in Iraq were kidnapped by rebels in Syria Tuesday, a Lebanese security source, and Hezbollah’s leader called on Lebanese angered by the abduction to exercise restraint and said efforts were under way to secure their release.
Quoting a member of the Syrian opposition, Reuters agency reported that Syrian forces launched raids with tanks and other armored vehicles in an area of northern Aleppo province near the place where Lebanese Shiite pilgrims were kidnapped.
The Lebanese source said the abducted men were among a group of about 100 Lebanese returning home from the pilgrimage to Iraq via Syria in two buses.
The rebels appear to have abducted the men to exchange them for jailed Syrians, the source added.
"The Free Syrian Army (FSA) said they took them. They let women go and kept the men. They told them that they will keep them until the Syrian army releases FSA detainees," a relative of one of the men was quoted by Reuters as saying.
"When we crossed the border around 40 gunmen stopped the bus and forced it into a nearby orchard and said women should stay on the bus and men get out," Hayat Awali, who identified herself as a passenger, told Lebanon's Al Jadeed TV from Aleppo.
"We told them we are only pilgrims. They said 'take your pilgrims and go the police station in Aleppo and tell them we have prisoners there and we want them'."
A member of one of the disparate bands of insurgents who fight under the umbrella of the FSA, contacted by Reuters through the Internet telephone channel Skype in Aleppo, denied any personal knowledge of the abduction.
Upon hearing the news of the adduction, angry relatives took to the streets of the southern suburb of Beirut where most of the kidnapped live and blocked several roads by burning tires.
The roads soon reopened after Hezbollah Secretary-General Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah called for calm.
“On behalf of Hezbollah and Amal I call on all relatives and supporters in the various regions to cooperate to end the closure of roads. Blocking roads does no good,” Nasrallah, who spoke on Al-Manar TV, said, expressing concern of attempts to stir conflict between the people and the Lebanese Army or “take the country to some place else.”
Nasrallah said efforts were under way to secure the release of the kidnapped men.
“The priority now is how to resolve the issue. We and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri will deal with this issue with the utmost responsibility,” he said.
“The government should also bear its responsibility and we are all willing to help in the release of the abducted Lebanese,” he added.
He said Prime Minister Najib Mikati and Berri had already launched contacts and “we have also begun contacts on the side.”
Nasrallah also blasted media reports about possible revenge kidnappings of Syrians in Lebanon.
“It is forbidden to talk about the kidnapping of Syrians in Lebanon or other expats from other sisterly countries,” he said.
The adduction was condemned by the head of the opposition Future Movement.
In a telephone conversation with Berri, former Prime Minister Saad Hariri “denounced in the strongest terms the kidnapping, regardless of the side that is behind it.”
“[Hariri expressed] complete solidarity with the families of the relatives of the kidnapped,” a statement from Hariri’s office said.
He also stressed the need that all efforts be taken in order that the kidnapped be released and returned to their loved ones.