A large Lebanese Shia clan said its military wing has kidnapped at least 23 people in Lebanon in a bid to secure the release of one of its family members allegedly kidnapped near Damascus this week.
"They were kidnapped because a member of our family was taken the day before yesterday in Syria," family member Abu Ali al-Meqdad said on Wednesday, adding that one of the Syrians was injured.
According to Arab television reports, a Syrian rebel group claimed it had kidnapped Hassan al-Meqdad on Monday, accusing him of being a sniper and a member of Lebanese Shia group Hezbollah.
"He is neither a sniper nor a member of Hezbollah," Abu Ali said. "All the accusations are a lie... our demand is not political, this is a humanitarian issue."
Hezbollah spoke out on Tuesday and denied al-Meqdad was a member of the party.
In remarks to Lebanon's National News Agency, Hassan al-Meqdad's brother Hatem said "the snowball would grow".
In a video broadcast by Al Mayadeen, a Lebanon-based TV station, two of the Syrian hostages were shown in the custody of masked gunmen from the Meqdad clan wearing green fatigues and armed with automatic rifles.
Clan member Maher al-Meqdad said the detained Syrians included a lieutenant who had deserted from Assad's army to join the rebels, while those who were not FSA members had been freed.
He gave no details of the abduction.
One of the detainees, shown looking tense in a room full of gunmen, identified himself as a captain by the name of Mohammed, and said his role was to help supply the FSA. The other man said he was his assistant.
'Number may rise'
The Meqdad family said their hostages included a Turkish businessman and several Syrians they described as members of the Free Syrian Army.
A diplomat said the Turkish businessman had been kidnapped shortly after arriving in Lebanon earlier on Wednesday.
"He was here for business, arrived today, and was kidnapped near the airport," the source said, adding that there was little progress so far in negotiations to secure his release.
"We do not take part in any harassment of innocent Syrians, but any supporter of the Free Syrian Army is a legitimate target for us," Hatem al-Meqdad said to a local Lebanese channel.
"Tomorrow the number may rise to 50, because it is the only way to save the life of Hassan," he said. "And those who ordered his kidnapping will pay dearly."
The family said it would also hold Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey responsible for the kidnapping of their relative. All three countries support rebel groups in Syria.
Saudi Arabia ordered its citizens to leave Lebanon "immediately", the state news agency reported in an SMS alert on Wednesday.
The United Arab Emirates issued a similar warning, with Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahayan tweeting: "Unfortunately, the situation is very dangerous."
Qatar urged its citizens to leave Lebanon as well, the state news agency reported. "Due to unstable security situation, Qatar's embassy in Beirut has urged Qatari nationals to leave Lebanon immediately," it said.
According to local media reports, Abu Ali also said that the Meqdad family was working closely with other families in the region, and would reveal a 'big catch' on Thursday.
An unnamed high-ranking security official said he had no immediate comment on the matter. "We are working on it," he said.
Ahmed Shlash, a Syrian MP currently in Lebanon to negotiate their release, told Al-Mayadeen: "Syrians coming to work in Lebanon should not be dragged into a sectarian struggle. Young people coming to work in Lebanon have nothing to do
Syria's main opposition coalition condemned the kidnappings, as Syrians seeking refuge in Lebanon from violence in their country expressed fears over Wednesday's incidents.
"The Syrian National Council expresses its deep dismay at the kidnapping of a large number of Syrian citizens, who had fled to Lebanon to take refuge from bloody oppression in their country," it said in a statement.
Violence in neighbouring Syria has spilled over into Lebanon in the form of cross-border shootings, shelling by the Syrian army, tit-for-tat kidnappings and sectarian clashes between groups which are divided over the revolt.
Syrian rebel groups have frequently accused Hezbollah, which is closely allied with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, of interfering in the violence, though the group has consistently denied this.
Syria occupied Lebanon militarily and politically for nearly three decades until 2005, when its troops were forced to pull out under international pressure after the assassination of former Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri that year.
Seven years after Syria withdrew from Lebanon, the country's political forces remain sharply divided over their neighbour.
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies