BEIRUT (AP) — Armed Shiite clansmen in Lebanon said Wednesday they had captured more than 20 Syrians and will hold them until one of their relatives seized by rebels inside Syria is freed. The tensions were a stark reminder of how easily Syria's civil war could spill over to neighboring states.
Lebanon is deeply divided between supporters and opponents of President Bashar Assad's regime. The country, which was devastated by its own 15-year civil war that Syria was deeply involved in, has witnessed clashes between pro- and anti-Syrian groups over the past months, mostly in the northern city of Tripoli.
Syrian rebels have adopted a new tactic recently of seizing prisoners from countries or foreign groups allied with the regime to rattle Assad and his allies outside the country. In May, Syrian rebels captured 11 Lebanese Shiites shortly after they crossed from Turkey on their way to Lebanon. Earlier this month, rebels abducted 48 Iranians near the capital Damascus.
The Syrian rebels are predominantly Sunni whereas Assad and his inner circle are dominated by Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
The Lebanese prisoner in Syria, Hassane Salim al-Mikdad, appeared in a video released by rebels over the past few days. He said he is a member of Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militant group allied with predominantly Shiite Iran and with Syria. The captive, who appeared to have bruises on his face, said he was sent to Syria to fight with Assad regime forces.
Hezbollah denied al-Mikdad is a member and his family claimed he has been living in Syria for more than a year.
Abu Ali al-Mikdad, a relative, told reporters in Beirut Wednesday that his Shiite clan has abducted "more than 20 Syrians" including a senior member of the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA).
Later Wednesday, the Beirut-based TV station Al-Mayadeen aired a video purporting to show two of the abducted Syrians who said they are members of the FSA. One of them identified himself as Capt. Mohammed and said his job was to supply the FSA with arms and fighters.
"I call them (FSA) upon to free the prisoners they are holding because they are innocent," said one of the two captured men shown on TV who identified himself as Maher Hassan Rabih.
In the Syrian capital of Damascus, a bomb attached to a fuel truck exploded Wednesday outside a hotel where U.N. observers are staying, wounding at least three people, Syrian state TV reported. Activists also reported clashes in different parts of Syria, including fighting near the government headquarters and the Iranian embassy both in Damascus.
Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad toured the area of the blast and said none of the U.N. staff was hurt. The explosion occurred as U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos was in the Syrian capital but her team is believed to be staying at a different hotel.
The blast was the latest in a series of explosions that have hit Damascus in the past months as clashes between government troops and rebels reached the capital, which had been relatively quiet since the uprising against Assad erupted in March last year.
Wednesday's explosion went off about 300 meters (yards) from the military command. According to an Associated Press reporter at the scene, the blast was inside the parking lot of a military compound. The lot is near the Dama Rose Hotel, popular with the U.N. observers in Syria and where many of the mission staff are staying.
The hotel was slightly damaged, with some of its windows shattered. A Labor Union building across from the hotel was also damaged and black smoke was seen billowing high into the sky before the fire was extinguished. Several fire engines arrived shortly after to fight the blaze, which took less than an hour to put out.
U.N. officials in Damascus said there was an explosion near the hotel they used adding that no U.N. staffers were hurt.
"This is a criminal act that shows what kind of attacks Syria is being subjected to," Mekdad, the deputy foreign minister, told reporters at the scene. "Such explosions will not affect Syria."
"I confirm that we are with the U.N. and we will do all we can to guarantee their protection so that they carry out their role," he added.
Activists say more than 20,000 people have been killed since the start of Syria's revolt, inspired by other Arab Spring uprisings against autocratic regimes in the region. The conflict has slowly morphed into a full blown civil war.
It was not immediately clear who was behind Wednesday's explosion or what was the intended target. There have been several high-profile bombings in the Syrian capital. On July 18, an explosion in a key government headquarters in Damascus killed four top generals, including Assad's brother-in-law. And in March, a double suicide bombing in Damascus killed 27 people.
"Those who carry out such terrorist attacks are destroying their country in order to get some pounds," shouted a Damascus resident, Ali Mohammed Ismail, 48, who said he happened to be in the area when the explosion went off.