ABBOUDIYEH, Lebanon: When Mahmoud Ibrahim strolled down to the border crossing at the northern end of his village last Thursday evening, he was expecting to meet with some Syrian friends.
But awaiting the 40-year-old father of four instead at the border were four Shabbiha militiamen, from the predominantly Alawite militia loyal to the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The Shabbiha dashed across the border into Lebanese territory while being covered by armed Syrian soldiers from the other side of the frontier. They used an electric stun gun to subdue Ibrahim before dragging him back across the border. Since then not a word has been heard from him, and his family have no idea where he is being held.Ibrahim’s abduction comes amid an escalation of cross-border shootings and tit-for-tat kidnappings along Lebanon’s northern frontier connected to the violence wracking Syria.
In the past week alone, several people, including an elderly woman, have been shot dead allegedly by Syrian soldiers firing into Lebanon; clashes have resumed between rival factions in the perennially troubled Tripoli, leaving at least seven people dead; and some 40 Sunni Syrians have been kidnapped in reprisal for the abduction of three Lebanese Shiites.
Supporters of the Future Movement living in villages strung along the northern border accuse the Lebanese government and security services of either failing to block Syrian transgressions or actively colluding with the Syrian regime in some of the abductions.
“Any person who is wanted by the Syrians is easily picked up because the Lebanese authorities are working with the Syrian security,” said Ali, a 22-year-old resident of the border village of Abboudiyeh. Like others interviewed here, Ali requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject.
In response to Ibrahim’s kidnapping, the angry residents of Abboudiyeh temporarily blocked the international road leading to Syria.
“The Lebanese authorities asked us to give them four days to secure Mahmoud’s release,” said a close relative of Ibrahim. “We are building our hopes on that. Otherwise, we will cut the international road and no one will come in or out of Syria. Then we will think of the next step.”
The international highway is little more than a narrow dusty potholed lane passing through Abboudiyeh, which sits on the southern bank of the Kabir River, the frontier between Lebanon and Syria. The road is choked with parked trucks waiting to cross into Syria. The Syrian customs officers are being more thorough than usual to ensure that none of the vehicles entering Syria are carrying weapons and ammunition for the armed opposition.
The kidnapping of Ibrahim is not the first such security incident in Abboudiyeh, locals say. Two weeks ago, Adnan Mohammad, a cousin of Ibrahim, was snatched while walking on the southern bank of the river. No news has been heard about him. Five days ago, Shabbiha militiamen crossed the border again and opened fire on a house belonging to Saleh Mansour.
“The Syrians tried luring him to the border crossing like they did Mahmoud, but Saleh didn’t fall for the trick,” said Ibrahim’s relative.
What remains unclear is why the Syrians would want to kidnap anyone from Abboudiyeh. The residents claimed that the village was well known for supporting the Syrian opposition, and that made them potential targets for the Syrian regime.
“We are all targets here. Mahmoud in particular was known for bad-mouthing Assad,” said Haitham, 24, who was sitting in a barber shop with some friends.
The Syrian authorities have accused Saudi Arabia and Qatar of funding and arming the Free Syrian Army, the main military opposition force in Syria.
Two weeks ago, the Lebanese Navy intercepted a ship carrying 150 tons of weapons, including U.S.-made TOW anti-tank missiles. The ship, which had sailed from Libya, was due to dock in Tripoli from where the arms apparently were to be smuggled into Syria.
Smuggling has been a way of life for decades in these northern border villages, but if any residents are involved in dispatching weapons to the Syrian opposition, no one was going to admit to it.
Tuesday marks the deadline set by the residents of Abboudiyeh for the government to arrange for Ibrahim’s release. The villagers say they are ready to escalate the situation if necessary. One man hinted that Alawites in neighboring villages could be abducted if Ibrahim is not released.
“If the government does nothing, we will cut the road, get weapons and protect ourselves. We will not allow the Syrians to cross when they want and take people away,” said Haitham.