Syrian rebels kidnapped 11 Lebanese Shias and one Syrian driver in northern Syria on Tuesday, fueling fears that Lebanon is getting drawn into the chaos next door, security officials said.
The Shias were on their way home from a religious pilgrimage in Iran when rebels intercepted their vehicles in Syria's Aleppo province and abducted the men, Hezbollah's Manar TV station said. The women were in a "safe place," Manar reported, without elaborating.
Lebanese security officials confirmed the kidnapping.
Some Lebanese took to the streets of Beirut's southern sector, a Shia area, and burned tires to protest the abductions.
The leader of Hezbollah, Lebanon's powerful Shia militant group and a strong ally of Syria, appealed for calm and warned his followers against revenge attacks targeting Syrians.
"This is strictly prohibited," Sheik Hassan Nasrallah said in a televised speech.
He urged protesters not to block the roads and he said the Lebanese government must press for the pilgrims' release.
"We will work day and night until these beloved people are with us," Nasrallah said.
Hezbollah has stood by the Syrian President Bashar Assad as he struggles to put down a 15-month-old uprising. Sunnis form the backbone of the uprising, which has unleashed boiling sectarian tensions.
Assad and the ruling elite in Syria belong to the tiny Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiism.
Rivalries cross Syria-Lebanon border
Tuesday's kidnappings come at a time of deep tension in Lebanon over the conflict in Syria. The countries share a complex web of political and sectarian ties and rivalries, which can quickly turn violent.
The conflict already has spilled across the border, with deadly results.
Lebanese Sunni groups supporting and opposing the Damascus regime fired rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns in the Lebanese capital early Monday, killing at least two people.
There is an array of die-hard pro-Syrian parties and politicians in Lebanon, as well as support for the regime at street level.
But there is an equally deep hatred of Assad among other Lebanese, who fear Damascus is still calling the shots in their country.
The tensions can be traced in part to Syria's virtual rule over Lebanon from 1976 to 2005, when Syrian troops were driven out.
During the time of Syrian dominance, Lebanese leaders used to travel frequently to Damascus to get marching orders.
It was the most serious outbreak of violence in Beirut since the uprising began next door.
The spark for the violence was the killing Sunday of Sheik Ahmed Abdul-Wahid, an anti-Syrian Sunni cleric, and his bodyguard in northern Lebanon. A Lebanese soldier shot the men, apparently after they failed to stop at an army checkpoint.
The killing fueled deep anger over the perceived support of some of Lebanon's security forces for the Syrian regime.
Syria had troops on the ground in Lebanon for nearly 30 years until 2005 and still has strong ties to Lebanon's security services.
Earlier this month, the arrest of Shadi Mawlawi, an outspoken Lebanese critic of Assad, set off several days of clashes in northern Lebanon that killed eight people. Mawlawi was accused of belonging to a terrorist group.
On Tuesday, authorities released him from jail on $330 bail, a move many hoped would defuse tensions.
During a news conference in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, Mawlawi said he was "subjected to psychological pressure and torture" following his May 12 arrest and was forced to give false confessions that he was connected to terror groups.
Mawlawi denies any links to such groups.
As he spoke, supporters at the news conference lashed out at the Syrian regime, saying, "Assad is the enemy of God."