Screen grab of a video filmed by Hassan Meqdad's captors.
Commanders of the Free Syrian Army have distanced themselves from hostage takers who say they have kidnapped a Lebanese sniper sent by militant group Hezbollah to fight Syrian rebels. Nevertheless, the incident has already caused outrage and threatens to destabilise Lebanon.
On Monday morning, a group claiming to be part of the Free Syrian Army contacted the powerful northern-Lebanon-based Meqdad clan to inform they had taken hostage one of their members, Hassan Meqdad. That evening, the group posted a video showing Meqdad surrounded by three masked men armed with guns. When questioned by a man off-camera, Meqdad, his face covered in bruises, said he was a Hezbollah sniper who came to Syria with 1,500 other fighters in early August “to help the Shiite army of the Syrian regime in its battle against the Sunni groups aligned with the Free Syrian Army”.
The clan denies Meqdad has any links with Hezbollah. On Lebanese television, they announced that they had taken at least 20 Syrians hostage in revenge, including a high-ranking member of the Free Syrian Army, who they proposed to exchange for Meqdad. In a report broadcast the same day on Lebanese channel Al Mayadine, two of the hostages appeared on camera calling on the Free Syrian Army to release Meqdad.
The Meqdad clan claims Hassan Meqdad fled Lebanon to escape judicial charges a year and a half ago and was living in Syria with friends sympathetic to the opposition in Damascus. Yazbek Wehbe, a presenter on the Lebanese TV channel LBCI, confirmed this version of the story on his Twitter account.
“I have been able to obtain documents that prove that Hassan Meqdad fled to Syria because of money problems and he lived with opponents of the Syrian regime. He has got nothing to do with Hezbollah."
“I went to his home and was able to check his criminal record. His wife does not even wear the veil. Syrian intelligence services kidnapped the men with whom he lived.”
When contacted by FRANCE 24, the Free Syrian Army denied the rebel army was behind Meqdad’s kidnapping. “The Free Syrian Army completely disassociates itself from this act,” said a spokesman. “This man is not a soldier from Hezbollah. We are investigating with our units on the ground to determine who is behind this kidnapping, and we are doing everything we can to free him.”
Meqdad is not the first Lebanese nationals to have been taken hostage in Syria. On May 22, 11 Lebanese Shiite pilgrims were kidnapped in the north of the country. According to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition watchdog, four of them were “seriously injured” on Wednesday when Syria’s air force launched a raid on the town of Azaz, near the Turkish border.
The conflict in Syria has raised sectarian tensions in Lebanon. The country’s Shiites sympathise with Syria’s Alawite regime (Alawism is an offshoot of Shia Islam), while its Sunnis generally side with the opposition insurgents. The hostage crisis has only increase those already heightened tensions and risks dragging Lebanon even further into Syria’s conflict.