A Syrian Islamist cleric said on Thursday that he was mediating the release of Muslim Shiite Lebanese men whose kidnapping in Syria triggered protests in Beirut and raised fears it could ignite sectarian conflict in Lebanon.
“They are well and safe, we are trying to secure their release, but the Syrian army shelling of the area has been blocking it so far,” Sheikh Ibrahim al-Zoaby, head of the Free People of Syria group, told Reuters.
The hostages were among a group of pilgrims returning to Lebanon from Iran when gunmen stopped their bus after it crossed into Syria from Turkey on Tuesday. Some passengers said the gunmen released the women and kept the men, in hopes of trading them for rebels in Syrian government custody.
Some of those released said the gunmen were from the Free Syrian Army (FSA), an umbrella organization led by exiled army defectors that exercises little control over the many insurgent bands in Syria. The FSA denied any connection to the kidnapping.
The rebel Free Syrian Army said it is making “every effort” to locate and release the group of Lebanese pilgrims.
“The leadership is making every effort to find out where the abductees are, and to make sure they are freed,” FSA official spokesman Colonel Kassem Saadeddine said in a statement.
Saadeddine reiterated that the FSA had no involvement in this week’s kidnappings, condemning “all kidnapping operations, regardless of their nationality or religious belief or sect.”
At the same time, he complained over the treatment of Syrian refugees and anti-regime figures in Lebanon.
“Revolutionary Syrians in Lebanon have faced persecution, kidnap and murder,” he charged. “We will no longer be silent on any action carried out by any Lebanese parties affecting Syrians in Lebanon.”
The FSA spokesman urged “the Lebanese state to take full responsibility in hosting and protecting Syrian refugees in Lebanon,” where the government is dominated by a coalition that supports Syria’s regime.
Zoaby said the kidnappers will issue a video or recording of the kidnapped men soon to show they are well. He said the kidnappers want to hand the men to the Lebanese authorities, and denied his group played any role in the abduction.
“I want to confirm that my group is not behind the kidnapping but they came to us because we have experience in mediation because we have mediated the release of the kidnapped Iranians,” he said, referring to a group of Iranians abducted late last year.
Sheikh Zoaby said that the group that abducted the men may have believed they were supporting pro-Assad militias which have been mobilized to put down the 14-month-old Syrian uprising.
“They are looking for a safe passage for them (the hostages) but the Syrian regime is not letting this happen, the regime want them dead so it can say the rebels are criminals,” he said.
Opposition activists in northern Syria said none of the mainstream guerrilla units known to operate in the area appeared to have been involved in the abductions. Syrian forces shelled the town of Azaz, near the site of the abductions, on Tuesday and Thursday, they said.
Families of the abducted men have blocked roads and burned tires to protest the kidnapping.
The protests led the head of Hezbollah, the political movement and guerilla group that is Syria’s strongest ally in Lebanon, to appeal for calm.
The kidnappings came at a time of deep tension in Lebanon over Syria. News of the abduction on Tuesday night set off protests in Beirut’s southern suburbs, where residents burned tires and blocked roads.
The protests in Beirut quieted down when the leader of Hezbollah, urged calm in a TV address.
“This is strictly prohibited,” Sheik Hassan Nasrallah said of the protests. “We will work day and night until these beloved people are with us.”
Syria’s uprising began in March 2011 with mostly peaceful calls for reform, but the government’s brutal crackdown on dissent led many in the opposition to take up arms. The U.N. estimates more than 9,000 people have been killed.
Lebanon and Syria share a complex web of political ties and rivalries, which can quickly turn violent.