Arab countries evacuate citizens from Lebanon over kidnappings
Arab countries Thursday started evacuating their nationals from Lebanon over a series of kidnappings of Sunni Muslim foreigners by a Lebanese Shiite clan avenging the abduction of one of its members in Syria, dpa reported.
The kidnappings raised fears that the Syrian civil war was spilling over the border into Lebanon, which like Syria is divided along sectarian lines.
Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates sent planes to Lebanon to fly home their nationals, officials at Beirut airport said.
They told dpa that many Arab nationals had spent the night at the airport to catch home-bound flights.
Saudi Arabia said it was sending at least three planes on Thursday to Lebanon.
Armed gunmen from the powerful Lebanese Shiite clan al-Mokdad blocked late Wednesday the main road leading to the airport after they kidnapped dozens of Syrians in Lebanon to secure the release of their relative who is held in Syria by rebels fighting to overthrown President Bashar al-Assad.
The spokesman for the clan, Hatem al-Mokdad, said they had kidnapped more than 50 Syrians and a Turkish man in the capital Beirut and the eastern Bekaa Valley.
"More kidnappings are to come. We will start kidnapping Arab nationals whose countries are backing the rebels, if our brother Hassan is not released," al-Mokdad told dpa.
The tensions prompted Air France on Wednesday to divert to Cyprus a flight from Paris to Beirut after armed Shiite demonstrators blocked the road to Beirut International Airport with burning tyres.
Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey are believed to have been arming the rebels in Syria and have repeatedly condemned al-Assad's crackdown on the opposition.
Sectarian tensions rose in Lebanon on Wednesday after reports that four of 11 Shiite pilgrims who were kidnapped by Syrian rebels in May were killed in a Syrian army air strike on a rebel-held area in the northern city of Aleppo near the Turkish border.
Opposition activists reported that more than 30 people were killed and 150 wounded in the attack.
Lebanese President Michel Suleiman has warned against "attempts to tamper with Lebanon's civil peace", the Lebanese National News Agency reported.
Thousands of Syrian refugees, as well as many activists and defectors fled to Lebanon.