BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian rebels kidnapped 13 Lebanese Shi’ites in the northern province of Aleppo on Tuesday as they returned home from a pilgrimage, triggering protests in Beirut in the latest unrest to spill over from Syria’s 14-month-old uprising.
The abductions follow street fighting in the Lebanese capital sparked by the killing of a Lebanese Sunni Muslim cleric opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad - the worst clashes in Beirut since 2008 sectarian fighting that brought back memories of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war.
The kidnappings also underscored how far Syria is from finding a way out of the chaos and bloodshed that has marked the uprising against Assad, which a U.N. peace plan hopes to resolve through talks based on a ceasefire that has yet to take hold.
Families of the kidnapped men blocked roads including the airport highway in the Shi’ite Muslim southern suburbs of Beirut - a stronghold of the Hezbollah political movement and guerrillas who are Syria’s allies - to demand their release.
“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 said.
“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 the Internet telephone channel Skype in Aleppo, denied any personal knowledge of the abduction.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah appealed for restraint in an address broadcast by Lebanese TV stations, saying: “...any act of violence or individual action will not help this case at all”.
The abductions came hours after a court released on bail a Sunni Muslim whose arrest earlier this month sparked unrest in a Sunni region of north Lebanon that backs the revolt against Assad, a member of the minority Alawite sect.
A judicial source said Shadi al-Moulawi was released on bail of 500,000 Lebanese pounds (211.21 pounds) and forbidden to leave the country, adding the charge of membership in a “terrorist” group levelled against him by a military prosecutor stood.
His arrest ushered in battles in the northern city of Tripoli between Sunni Islamist foes of Assad - who said Moulawi was merely assisting Syrian refugees - against the Lebanese army and Alawite supporters of Assad, and killed eight people.
Those battles moved to the capital after the Lebanese army killed two people, one of them a prominent anti-Assad cleric, in northern Lebanon on Sunday, culminating in Beirut firefights between Sunni factions opposed and loyal to Syria that killed two.
Tripoli and its environs are a redoubt of deeply conservative Sunni Muslims, the same sect as the bulk of the Syrian population and insurgency which vows to bring down Assad.
Damascus has said the region harbours “terrorists” with ties to al Qaeda and the Islamist factions that dominate Syria’s fragmented political opposition, and demands Lebanon cut the flow of arms across the border to insurgents.
Earlier on Tuesday, Syrian TV and activists said a bomb killed five people in a Damascus neighbourhood that has seen periodic anti-Assad protests and clashes between insurgents and security forces determined to crush them.
Hours later, rebels in the eastern city of Deir al-Zor - where a car bomb killed nine people at a military intelligence post three days ago - said Syrian police killed two people when they fired on a crowd that came out to greet U.N. monitors.
A United Nations spokeswoman said the team had heard gunfire but had not seen any casualties outside the village of al-Busaira, and that the U.N. team had sought to keep villagers following them from entering the government-controlled town.
The monitors’ mission is part of a peace plan laid out by U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan last month, which stipulates the release of political prisoners among other things as steps toward a political accord to end the violence.
A British-based opposition group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said security forces arrested dozens of people in raids on the suburbs of the capital on Tuesday, and that rebels skirmished with government troops in northern Idlib province.
There was no immediate independent confirmation of the accounts from Syria, which has restricted journalist access over the course of the uprising, the longest and one of the bloodiest episodes in a wave of mass mobilisation against Arab leaders from Tunisia to Yemen over the last 18 months.
Additional reporting by Dominic Evans, Oliver Holmes, and Khaled Yacoub Oweis; Writing by Joseph Logan; Editing by Michael Roddy