Syria war leads to rise of kidnappings in Lebanon

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BEIRUT – For nearly three weeks, kidnappers held Lebanese pharmacist Wissam Khatib, threatening to kill him and his children if his family didn't pay a ransom of tens of thousands of dollars.

During his captivity, Khatib – often shackled and blindfolded – went through depression, terror, pain. But, he says, the trauma was not a surprise. A well-to-do pharmacist in the eastern Lebanese city of Zahleh, the 40-year-old Khatib knew he was a target.

He had escaped one kidnapping attempt in August, when he saw masked gunmen approaching his pharmacy and fled before they saw him. He expected them to return, knowing that Lebanon's weak security forces couldn't help him.

"The state knew, security forces knew, but they didn't help me at all," Khatib told The Associated Press.

Hostage-taking of wealthy businessmen in Lebanon has risen more than seven-fold in an unlikely knock-on effect from Syria's civil war. Security officials say gangs who once made their money smuggling fuel and contraband through the porous Syria-Lebanon border have watched their trade wither because of the violence, so they are turning to kidnapping to make a profit.

Lebanon is suffering multiple woes from the war next door. The tiny country, with a population of 4.5 million, has been flooded with an estimated 1 million Syrians fleeing the conflict. Also, tensions between its Sunni and Shiite communities have spiked, sometimes exploding into deadly clashes, mirroring the sectarian hatreds in Syria, where Sunnis largely support the rebellion, and Shiites and the Alawite sect – an offshoot of Shiism – back President Bashar Assad.

In the latest violence, a Sunni sheik, Saad El-Deen Ghieh, was shot to death in his car Tuesday by gunmen in the northern city of Tripoli, scene of frequent clashes between Sunnis and Alawites in connection with Syria's war.

In contrast, the kidnapping wave – a more indirect repercussion – illustrates the multiple, unexpected ways that Lebanon, with its fragile hold on security, is vulnerable to the turmoil across the border. There are fears the problem could spread – and that abductions could spread beyond criminal activity and into political motives – as Syria's war, which began in March 2011, continues.

"The reason why there are so many kidnappings is because the state is failing. State security is unable and cannot work," warned Lebanese security analyst Nizar Abdul-Qader.

Security officials acknowledge they are overwhelmed by the mounting problems rooted in Syria's conflict.

"The weight on the state is heavy – it's above what the state can handle," said one official in the Interior Ministry, which in charge of security forces. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the press. He said such kidnappings for ransom in the past were "very, very rare."

Lebanon's Internal Security Forces recorded 73 kidnappings between August 2011 and September 2013. In contrast, there were 14 cases total in the previous five years.

Most of the abductions take place in Lebanon's eastern Bekaa Valley, where heavily armed clans hold sway, some of them involved in the smuggling trade.

Gangs once made their money sneaking cheap cigarettes, fuel, clothes and other items into Lebanon from Syria. But now, unable to freely pass through areas in Syria that have become war zones, they've turned their hand to kidnappings at home, three security officials told AP, speaking on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to talk to the press. They've found accomplices among Syrian and Lebanese men struggling in Lebanon's economy, hit hard by the war next door, the officials said.

The kidnapping is creating a sense of palpable panic. Lebanese media routinely runs pleas from families of the abducted.

On Oct. 12, the family of one seized man, Ramez Bahnam, went on TV to plead with the kidnappers to release him, saying his health would deteriorate. Hours later, they asked the kidnappers "to ensure he is taking his medicine regularly." Bahnam was released eight days later.

The security officials said most kidnappings end with ransoms being paid, usually less than the high initial demands made by kidnappers, though families are usually reluctant to acknowledge paying, in part of out of fears of becoming repeat targets.

Khatib, the pharmacist, said he was snatched in late September. As he opened his pharmacy in the early morning, masked gunmen screeched up in a car and forced him in. During 17 days in captivity, he was blindfolded and shackled, with the gunmen telling him they would kill his children if his family didn't pay the ransom. They also called his family, threatening to kill him.

"I said, 'Kill me. Shred me to bits. But my family, nobody touches them,'" Khatib said.

He was released on Oct. 16. Khatib denied paying any ransom, saying his kidnappers freed him because of pressure from tribal leaders, but the security officials said they believe some money was paid.

Among those snatched was Yousef al-Lubani, a 50-year-old Palestinian businessman living in Lebanon, whose kidnapping in the Bekaa Valley was reported on Nov. 4. He was released two days later, likely after his family paid off the kidnappers, a security official said.

The new kidnappings have overwhelmingly targeted Lebanese and Arabs living in the country, not Westerners. So far, there's little interest in foreigners because of the media attention they attract, said analysts of the British risk-assessment firm Drum Cussac Information Services.

But in November, two German men were briefly seized en route to the Bekaa town of Shleifa. It wasn't clear why: Two security officials said the abduction came after an argument with drug dealers, but a third said the Germans were taken at gunpoint and ordered to pay for their freedom.

While the wave of kidnappings is criminal in nature, there has been one major one more directly connected to Syria's war. In August, Lebanese gunmen kidnapped two Turkish pilots near Beirut airport, in retaliation for the abduction of nine Lebanese Shiite men by rebels in Syria in May 2012. The Shiites and Turks were freed last months under a three way deal that also freed a group of women held in Syrian prisons.

Analysts and officials say al-Qaida-style kidnappings that often end with the slaughtering of their hostages is a distant scenario for now. But they warned Lebanon was vulnerable.

The risk would grow if al-Qaida sought to punish Western countries, for instance, for becoming publicly involved in the Syrian crisis or were perceived to side with the Assad government, analysts of Drum Cussac Information Services said in a written response to questions.

"Should the security situation in Lebanon degrade even further, there is indeed an elevated potential for such activity to occur," they said.

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Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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