A Syrian Islamist religious leader says he is mediating the release of a group of Lebanese Shia men who were kidnapped in Syria's northern city of Aleppo two days ago.
The abduction of the men has caused international allies and adversaries of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to sound an alarm about a spread of sectarian violence across Syria's borders.
"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 news agency on Thursday.
Zoaby said the kidnappers will issue a video or recording of the kidnapped men soon to show they were well. He said the kidnappers want to hand the men to the Lebanese authorities.
The female members of the Lebanese pilgrims' group caught up in Tuesday's kidnapping were not seized and returned to Beirut, the Lebanese capital, the next day.
The Free Syrian Army, the biggest armed group seeking to overthrow Assad's government, said on Thursday it was making "every effort" to locate and release the group of pilgrims.
"The leadership is making every effort to find out where the abductees are, and to make sure they are freed," Colonel Kassem Saadeddine, FSA's official spokesman, said in a statement.
He reiterated that the FSA had no involvement in this week's kidnappings, and condemned "all kidnapping operations, regardless of their nationality or religious belief or sect".
The rebels play down the sectarian element in their 15-month-old uprising. But the spread of Sunni-Shia violence in Lebanon this past week has highlighted the destabilising potential of the conflict pitting Syria's Sunni majority against Assad's Alawites, an offshoot of Shia Islam whose leaders have allied with Shia Iran.
With sectarian tensions escalating in Lebanon, security forces stormed a building in Beirut early on Thursday after a night-time shootout with armed men holed up inside an apartment.
The incident left two people dead and seven more wounded, Lebanese security sources said.
The cause of the clash, during which the men used hand grenades against the security personnel, was a "personal dispute" between at least one of the men and a woman in her early 20s, the sources said.
|Lebanese soldiers stormed an apartment in west Beirut on Thursday in what was called a 'personal dispute' [Reuters]
The latest clashes in Beirut came after the weekend killing of two religious leaders at an army checkpoint in Akkar, a mainly Sunni Muslim region whose inhabitants are hostile to the Syrian government.
The killings ignited street battles in Beirut that left two people dead and 18 wounded.
Multiple violent incidents took place on Wednesday in several areas of Beirut.
Against this backdrop, Saudi Arabia, a strong critic of Assad's rule, and Russia, which has defended him, have both given warning that Syria's strife could reignite civil war in Lebanon.
"There is now ... a real threat of the conflict spilling over into Lebanon," Sergei Lavrov, Russia's foreign minister, said in Moscow on Wednesday.
"Given the history and ethnic and religious make-up of the population, and the principles on which the Lebanese state is based, it could end very badly."
For his part, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud has written an open letter to Michel Suleiman, Lebanon's president, saying: "Saudi Arabia is deeply concerned. Due to the gravity of the crisis and the possibility of it causing sectarian strife in Lebanon and bringing it back to the shadow of civil war, we are looking to your ... attempts to intervene to and the crisis ... and keep Lebanon away from foreign struggles, especially with the Syrian crisis nearby."