The Free Syrian Army, which is seeking the overthrow of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, on Wednesday denied abducting a group of Shiite Lebanese pilgrims inside Syria.
“The FSA is not at all responsible for the operation,” Mustafa al-Sheikh, a high-ranking FSA officer, told AFP by telephone from Istanbul.
“This is an attempt to distort the image of the FSA. The FSA does not believe in this methodology,” said Sheikh, the head of the group’s military council.
Lebanon’s state news agency on Tuesday reported that the FSA had abducted 13 pilgrims in Syria’s northern Aleppo province.
Syrian state media too blamed the FSA for the abductions, which were feared to heighten sectarian tensions in Lebanon over the revolt in neighbouring Syria.
Sheikh said the Syrian regime “treats the FSA as a scapegoat. We condemn this abduction, which does not represent the values of the (Syrian) revolution.”
The kidnapping “is no doubt the work of the regime, which wants to sow chaos in the region,” Sheikh added.
Syria’s main opposition coalition issued a statement Wednesday calling for the prompt release of the group, adding that it too believed the Syrian regime could be involved in the kidnapping.
The Syrian National Council “does not think it is impossible that the regime is involved in this operation,” in order to sow “disorder” in neighbouring Lebanon, the group said.
The group was reportedly kidnapped as they headed home to Lebanon from a pilgrimage in Iran.
The news prompted their families and thousands of supporters to pour out into the streets of Beirut’s mainly Shiite suburbs to demand their release.
Lebanon’s Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah urged restraint protesters blocked several roads, including the old airport road, with burning tyres and garbage bins on Tuesday.
The roads were reopened later in the evening.