Syrian army tightens control to thwart what Damascus says are smuggling routes for rebels.
Several members of a group of Lebanese Shia Muslim pilgrims caught up in a kidnapping in Syria have returned to the Lebanese capital, sources say.
The 34 female pilgrims arrived at Beirut’s airport on Wednesday. They were travelling with at least 11 men and a Syrian driver, who were abducted on Tuesday in the the northern Syrian city of Aleppo and are still being held.
The Syrian media said an “armed terrorist gang” was responsible.
“After we crossed the Turkish-Syrian border, a white car with gunmen inside stopped us,” Anaam Yateem, one of the women pilgrims, said on arriving at Beirut airport.
“They pointed their guns and got into the buses. First they took us to the fields saying that they are taking us away from the shelling, while they took us there to kidnap the men …They said they are the Free Syrian Army.”
However, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), an armed group seeking to overthrow the government of President Bashar al-Assad, has repeatedly said that it was not involved in the kidnapping.
Siham Almahmoud, the wife of Awad Ibrahim, one of those kidnapped, told Al Jazeera that she was held by the gunmen for about five hourse before they released her.
Adnan Mansur, Lebanon’s foreign minister, identified the men behind the abductions as “a splinter group of the armed Syrian opposition”, but did not give details.
He said those kidnapped would be freed “within hours”.
|Al Jazeera’s Rula Amin met the wife of one of the kdinapped Lebanese Shia pilgrims on her return to Beirut|
“According to information provided by an Arab country, those kidnapped will be free within hours,” Mansur told Al-Jadeed, a private satellite television station, on Wednesday.
The kidnappings prompted families of those abducted to gather in Beirut’s mainly Shia southern suburbs on Tuesday to demand their release.
The protesters closed down several roads, including the old airport road, with burning tyres and garbage bins.
Afterwards, Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah leader, 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 kidnappings were sure to further inflame sectarian tension in Lebanon, where clashes between supporters and opponents of Assad have left at least 12 people dead in the past 10 days.
The abductions also came just 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.