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Kidnapping threats escalate in Lebanon, neighboring Syria

Relatives of nine men who’ve been held by rebels in Syria for the past year have threatened to kidnap any Turkish nationals found in Beirut.

Two Turkish Airlines pilots were abducted Friday. The arrest of a Lebanese man Sunday in that kidnapping – he’s a son of one of the men held in Syria – triggered threats to snatch up even more Turks in Beirut.

The abduction of the pilots marked a quick escalation of hostage taking as various factions hit by the Syrian civil war angle for leverage to win the release of earlier abductees.

Such retaliatory kidnappings figure to complicate allegiances in the region and to gut Lebanon’s shaky tourism trade.

The Northern Storm Brigades rebel group abducted nine Lebanese pilgrims in Syria last year while they were headed to Shiite Muslim religious sites. They were taken hostage as suspected members of the militant group Hezbollah, which has strongly backed the Syrian regime in its fight against the rebels.

The nine men have been held pending a swap for female prisoners held by the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The pilgrims’ families hailed Friday’s abduction of the Turkish pilots from central Beirut as a way to force the issue.

They’ve grown frustrated with a lack of progress in freeing the men, and they share a belief – widely held among Lebanese Shiites – that the Turkish government could easily deliver the pilgrims’ release.

Turkey, which has officially cut off diplomatic ties with the Assad regime and expressed support for the opposition, was involved in negotiating the release months ago of two pilgrims who were with the nine still held.

The families are threatening further abductions unless the man whom Beirut’s Internal Security Forces arrested Sunday in connection with the kidnappings – Mohammed Saleh, the son of one of the pilgrims – is released.

Saleh allegedly received a number of congratulatory messages on his mobile phone after the pilots were abducted.

Attempts by Lebanese lawmakers and political leaders to broker a release of the pilots and Saleh failed Monday night. That prompted the pilgrims’ families to declare that any Turkish citizen in Beirut might be targeted next and that an escalation of the protests to close Beirut’s international airport might come at any time.

“The detention of Saleh is a political move by the Information Branch” of Lebanon’s national police force, Hayat Awali, the wife of one of the hostages, told a news conference of local media in a southern Beirut suburb. “Therefore, a large group of the relatives of hostages are heading to Beirut’s streets, and any Turk seen there will be kidnapped.”

The Information Branch of the national police force is widely seen in Lebanon’s fractious political and sectarian environment as politically opposed to Hezbollah and anti-Shiite.Turkish institutions responded dramatically to the weekend of threats. The Turkish military announced that it would withdraw several hundred troops from a United Nations peacekeeping mission along the border with Israel. It also ramped up security around its diplomatic facilities, cultural centers and businesses.

The announcement that the Turkish government was withdrawing its contribution to the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon followed abruptly on the heels of the pilots’ kidnapping. It came amid concern over Hezbollah’s power in south Lebanon, where the special U.N. force is based.

“Hezbollah doesn’t need to have done the kidnapping themselves,” said a Western military attache with close ties to the U.N. force, speaking only on the condition of anonymity because of a lack of authorization to talk to journalists. “They’re in a position to control these sorts of incidents, and the message is clear that they aren’t going to stop them.”

A resident of the predominantly Shiite southern suburbs of Beirut said Hezbollah was keen to a growing anger among residents about the kidnappings.

“The government can do nothing for our hostages and the Turks control their fate,” said Abu Ibrahim Moussawi, a storeowner in southern Beirut. “Hezbollah knows that the people are furious and need to let the families . . . pressure the Turks to release our people.”

A Hezbollah security commander denied the group’s involvement in the kidnappings. But he said the situation was being closely monitored to “make sure things do not get out of control. The people are very angry, and we have to respect them.”

The escalating drama around the nine pilgrims – who appear to have close family and cultural ties to Hezbollah – has thrown Beirut’s tourism industry into disarray even as Syria’s tiny neighbor already has seen a massive drop in the economically crucial sector, which represents at least 25 percent of the country’s economy.

“What happened could be the last nail in the coffin of the tourism sector,” interim Tourism Minister Fadi Abboud told a local TV station. He stressed that the kidnappings came just as the Lebanese government was attempting to convince several nations to relax their travel warnings on Lebanon.