(BEIRUT) — Many in Lebanon now fear their country is being pulled into the ongoing conflict in neighboring Syria after reports that 13 Lebanese Shiite pilgrims were kidnapped by members of a rebel group.
News of the abduction sparked violent protests in Beirut, compelling Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah to appeal for calm.
Hezbollah supports Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who initiated a crackdown on political opponents in March 2011. There are estimates of between 9,000 and 12,000 deaths since then.
According to state media in Lebanon, the pilgrims were returning from visiting sacred Shiite sites in Iran when their bus was confronted by gunmen from the Free Syria Army.
The women were released and brought to the Syrian city of Aleppo. The kidnappers said they will free the men once the Syrian government releases their own prisoners, who are being jailed in Aleppo.
Meanwhile, forces loyal to al-Assad are believed to be undertaking a major operation in the area, presumably to get back the hostages.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Paul Cruickshank and Michael Pearson, CNN