BEIRUT/ALEPPO - Gulf Arab states began evacuating their citizens from Lebanon on Thursday after kidnappings linked to Syria's civil war showed violence has begun to spread across a region torn by sectarian divisions.
Lebanese Shi'ite gunmen seized more than 20 people in an area of Beirut run by Hezbollah, a group backed by Syrian ally Iran, and said they were holding citizens of Turkey and Saudi Arabia, key backers of Syria's mainly Sunni Muslim insurgency.
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain all told their nationals to leave at once. Some nations have already begun flying their citizens home.
The kidnappers' threat to take more Saudi, Turkish and Qatari hostages to secure the release of a kinsman held by Syrian rebels in Damascus bore ominous echoes of Lebanon's own, long civil war - and Arab governments lost no time in urging visitors to leave Beirut's popular summer tourist haunts.
"The snowball will grow," warned Hatem al-Meqdad, a senior member of the powerful Lebanese Shi'ite Meqdad family who said his brother was detained by the Free Syrian Army two days ago.
Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose Alawite minority is an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, has long relied on support from Shi'ite Iran and its Hezbollah allies. He accuses the Sunni powers of the Gulf and Turkey of promoting the revolt against him, which grew out of Arab Spring demonstrations 18 months ago.
While his opponents, and the Western powers which sympathize with them, insist they want to avoid the kind of sectarian blood-letting seen in Iraq, rebels who mostly come from Syria's disadvantaged Sunni majority have seized Iranians and Lebanese there in recent weeks, saying they may be working for Assad.'We haven't done anything yet'
On Wednesday, the Meqdad clan said it was holding more than 20 people, including a Saudi, a Turkish businessman and several Syrians they described as anti-Assad fighters. Its action was a blow to a Lebanese economy for which Gulf tourists have played a part in recovery after 15 years of civil war ended in 1990.
"We still haven't even done one percent; we still haven't really moved," said a man who told reporters late on Wednesday in Beirut's Hezbollah-controlled Dahiya district that he and his fellow masked gunmen from the Meqdad clan's "military wing" were ready to take more action against Syrian rebels in Lebanon.
The Turkish hostage told a Lebanese television channel he was being treated well. Another station broadcast footage it said showed two Syrian hostages in the custody of masked gunmen from the Meqdad clan wearing fatigues and armed with rifles.
Air France diverted one of its planes away from Beirut on Wednesday evening for "security reasons" after the kidnappings. The road from the airport has regularly been blocked by protesting families of Lebanese being held in Syria.
Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati condemned the kidnappings, but his government seemed largely powerless to act.
"This brings us back to the days of the painful war, a page that Lebanese citizens have been trying to turn," he said.
Fighting in Syria has triggered violence across the border before - some of it linked to Syrian rebels bringing arms and supplies across Lebanon.
But the round of hostage-taking on both sides adds a new factor for regional states, who are advancing their strategic interests while Russia and the West are deadlocked by their deep divisions over Syria.
At a meeting in Saudi Arabia, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation suspended Syria on Thursday
, citing Assad's suppression of the Syrian revolt, but there was little support for direct military involvement.
The 57-member body's rebuke is mostly symbolic, but it shows Syria's isolation - as well as that of its ally Iran - across much of the Sunni-majority Islamic world.
Against that backdrop, the bloodshed in Syria continues.Air strikes and war crimes
In Azaz, near the heavily contested northern economic hub of Aleppo, bombing by Assad's air force killed 30 people, according to a local doctor, and wounded scores more as buildings were flattened. Among those hurt, a rebel commander said, were seven Lebanese being held captive. A further four were missing.
Assad's forces have increasingly been using their air power against the lightly armed insurgents - a tactic which featured in fresh accusations of war crimes
leveled by UN human rights investigators on Wednesday.
They said rebels had also committed war crimes, but the violations "did not reach the gravity, frequency and scale" of those by state forces and the pro-Assad shabbiha militia.
Last month, Assad's troops successfully counter-attacked after rebels seized parts of Damascus. They are still trying to dislodge insurgents from Aleppo, Syria's biggest city.
A Syrian air strike wrecked a hospital in a rebel-held area of Aleppo, a doctor there said on Wednesday, an attack that New York-based Human Rights Watch said violated international law. At least two holes gaped in the walls of Al Shifaa Hospital and four floors were heavily damaged by Tuesday's raid.
Most Western and Arab governments have called on Assad to go, saying his government's violent response to initially peaceful protests give him no place in a future Syria.
Russia has opposed tougher UN sanctions against Damascus, a long-time strategic ally, but denies it is actively helping Assad remain in power. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused Western governments of reneging on a deal among world powers made on June 30 to push for a transitional government in Syria.
Washington shot back that it was Russia and China which had blocked efforts to pass a UN Security Council resolution.
The price being paid by the Syrian people was underlined by the UN humanitarian chief, Valerie Amos, who said that as many of 2.5 million people, about one tenth of the population, were in need of aid.
Speaking in Syria where she met Prime Minister Wael al-Halki this week, Amos said: "Back in March, we estimated that a million people were in need of help. Now as many as 2.5 million are in need of assistance and we are working to update our plans and funding requirements."