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Syria violence fuels kidnapping threats in Lebanon

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Story highlights

  • Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE and Kuwait urge their citizens to leave Lebanon
  • Family of a man held by Syrian rebels claims retaliatory abductions
  • Lebanon's president says "spreading chaos" won't help

Several Persian Gulf states called on their citizens to leave Lebanon on Wednesday after the civil war in neighboring Syria fueled protests and kidnapping threats there.

Groups of youths protesting the abduction of a Lebanese citizen by Syrian rebel forces burned tires and blocked the road to Beirut's international airport late Wednesday as soldiers in riot gear and armed with tear gas stood by. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates urged their nationals to get out of Lebanon immediately, with Kuwait warning of a "deteriorating security situation" in the country.

The UAE said its embassy in Beirut had been warned that Emirati citizens were targets of possible kidnappers "because of the difficult and sensitive circumstances in Lebanon," Undersecretary of the Foreign Ministry Juma Mubarak Al Jenaibi told the state news agency WAM. And Saudi Arabia noted "threats by unknown sources to abduct Saudi nationals and others" in urging its people to get out.

Lebanon is now hosting 36,000 Syrian refugees, and the conflict next door threatens to upset the careful sectarian political balance that has managed to prevail since the end of a 15-year civil war in 1990. President Michel Sleiman called on all parties to keep the peace and to stop threatening to kidnap anyone.

"Spreading chaos does not bring back any kidnapped nor restores any right," Sleiman said in a statement quoted by the official news agency NNA. "Instead, it shatters all rights and endangers the lives of citizens, and threatens the state's entity which guarantees people's lives and rights."

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Lebanon was long dominated by Syria, which kept troops there until 2005. It supports the anti-Israel militia Hezbollah, the Shiite Muslim movement that has become a powerful force in Lebanese politics. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE, along with Turkey and some Western powers, have been supporting the Syrian opposition, while the Lebanese are split between supporting the opposition or the embattled government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

    The latest unrest in Lebanon was triggered by the kidnapping in Damascus of a Lebanese man, Hassan Salim Meqdad, by Syrian rebels who accused him of being a Hezbollah member. The rebel Free Syrian Army distributed a "confession" by Meqdad in which he said he was one of 1,500 Hezbollah fighters operating in Syria.

    In response, Meqdad's brother Hatem Meqdad told Lebanon's state news agency that his family had kidnapped 26 Syrians living in Lebanon and warned that citizens of the Persian Gulf monarchies and Turkey would be next. Two of the captives were displayed for cameras, appearing beneath a black tribal banner.

    The violence in Syria has been spilling over into Lebanon since May, when a group of Shiite pilgrims were kidnapped in Syria. That has raised fears that factional rivalries could erupt into outright warfare in a country where power is constitutionally balanced among Shiites, Sunni Muslims and Christians. A series of gun battles, riots and angry protests that month left at least 11 people dead that month.