Syrian violence begins to spread

BEIRUT/ALEPPO — Gulf Arab states began evacuating their citizens from Lebanon today after kidnappings linked to Syria’s civil war showed violence has begun to spread across a region torn by sectarian divisions.

A Lebanese Shi’ite clan seized more than 20 people in Beirut and said a Turkish hostage, whose country is a key backer of Syria’s mainly Sunni Muslim insurgency, would be the first to die if a kinsman held by Syrian rebels is killed.

The powerful Shi’ite Meqdad family is seeking to put pressure on rebels fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to release clan member Hassan al-Meqdad, who has been held by the Free Syrian Army for two days.

The clan has targeted Syrians it believes belong to the FSA, as well as citizens of Turkey, one of the rebels’ regional sponsors.

An earlier threat by the kidnappers to seize Saudis, Turks and Qataris to secure the release of a kinsman held by Syrian rebels in Damascus bore ominous echoes of Lebanon’s own civil war – and Arab governments lost no time in urging visitors to leave Beirut’s popular summer tourist haunts.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain all told their nationals to leave at once. Some nations have already begun flying their citizens home.

“The snowball will grow,” warned Hatem al-Meqdad, a senior member of the Meqdad family who said his brother Hassan was detained by the FSA two days ago.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose Alawite minority is an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam, has long relied on support from Shi’ite Iran and its Hezbollah allies.

He accuses the Sunni powers of the Gulf and Turkey of promoting the revolt against him, which grew out of Arab Spring demonstrations 18 months ago.

While his opponents, and the Western powers which sympathise with them, insist they want to avoid the kind of sectarian blood-letting seen in Iraq, rebels who mostly come from Syria’s disadvantaged Sunni majority have seized Iranians and Lebanese there in recent weeks, saying they may be working for Assad. (Reuters)

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