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BEIRUT: A heavily armed Lebanese tribe have taken at least 20 hostages, including foreign citizens, and set up a barricade around Beirut’s main airport, as a dispute that began with the kidnapping of a tribesman in Syria has escalated into a conflict that now involves much of the Mideast.
On Wednesday, the Meqdad clan said it was holding more than 20 people, including a Saudi, a Turkish businessman and several Syrians they described as anti-Assad fighters. Its action was a blow to a Lebanese economy for which Gulf tourists have played a part in recovery after 15 years of civil war ended in 1990.
«We still haven’t even done one percent; we still haven’t really moved,» said a man who told reporters late on Wednesday in Beirut’s Hezbollah-controlled Dahiya district that he and his fellow masked gunmen from the Meqdad clan’s «military wing» were ready to take more action against Syrian rebels in Lebanon.
Fighting in Syria has triggered violence across the border before – some of it linked to Syrian rebels bringing arms and supplies across Lebanon. But the round of hostage-taking, on both sides, adds a new factor for regional states engaged in advancing their strategic interests while the world powers are deadlocked by a split over Syria between Russia and the West.
Earlier this week, a video posted online showed Hasan al-Miqdad, a member of the Shi’ite al-Miqdad tribe from Lebanon’s Baalbek region, being held by masked men who claimed to be members of the Free Syrian Army. In the video, he «confesses» to being part of a team personally sent to Syria by Hezbollah leader Sayyid Hasan Nasrallah to fight Sunni forces. Al-Miqdad has a bruised face in the footage, and it’s unclear if his statement was coerced.
The captive’s tribe reacted with fury, rejecting the accusation that Hasan al-Miqdad had been sent by Nasrallah, saying instead that Hasan Al-Miqdad had been in Syria for more than a year because he was unable to find work in Lebanon.
Tensions heightened yesterday, after the al-Miqdad tribe retaliated by kidnapping more than 20 men in Lebanon, including one Saudi, one Turk, and several Syrians allegedly belonging to the FSA. One of the men – the Turkish national -was kidnapped while leaving the airport.
Masked members of the tribe appeared on television, threatening to kidnap more Syrian, Saudi, Turkish and UAE individuals inside Lebanon if al-Miqdad was not released. They also lashed out at the Lebanese government for failing to intervene and press the FSA for Miqdad’s return.
«This family has a military arm that is in charge of abducting Syrians in the Lebanese territories from the North, South, Bekaa to the seashore,» said Maher al-Mikdad, a spokesman for the Mikdad family. «We would like to make it clear that the freedom of our son is weighed against the freedom of those who were abducted.»
The tribe then took control of the main road leading to the airport, setting fire to a mound of burning tires and blocking traffic in all directions. At least one flight bound for the Beirut airport has been rerouted.
The kidnappings – and threat of more – prompted Saudi Arabia to urge all its citizens to leave Lebanon immediately. Qatar and the United Arab Emirates followed soon, with Qatar threatening to expel all its Lebanese nationals if any Qataris were kidnapped.
Up until today’s dramatic developments, Lebanon had been spared some of the sectarian strife engulfing its neighbor. Lebanon lived through a 15-year civil war fought largely along religious sectarian lines.
Today’s kidnapping and airport blockage threaten Lebanon’s fragile balance, as a pro-Syrian Shi’ite tribe seeks vigilante justice against Sunni groups who are trying to topple the Assad regime, a longtime Hezbollah benefactor.
Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E., and Turkey are all majority Sunni countries and are believed to be providing arms and support to the anti-Assad rebels, while Shi’ite Iran remains Syria’s staunchest ally.