Syrians Freed in Abductions That Stoked Fears of More Strife

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BEIRUT, Lebanon -- The tit-for-tat kidnappings of more than 140 people have provoked fears of expanded sectarian conflict in Syria's northern Idlib Province in recent days, but one set of hostages was released in good condition on Saturday after negotiations between residents of two of the affected villages, according to a rebel commander.

Kidnappings for money or political reasons have become common in Syria as government control has eroded. The recent series of events demonstrated not only the high level of insecurity in the area, but also the determination of residents to defuse tensions.

The first kidnappings took place on Thursday, when 42 minority Shiite Muslims, mainly women and children, were taken from a bus traveling to Damascus, the capital, from their villages, Fouaa and Kfarya, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an antigovernment watchdog group based in Britain with a network of activists in Syria.

It was unclear who kidnapped them. Some elements of the mainly Sunni Muslim uprising have portrayed all Shiites as supporters of the government, and some Shiite communities have provided gunmen to pro-government militias. Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia and political party, has also been accused of joining the conflict on the government's side.

Later on Thursday, scores of people, mostly women from the mainly Sunni town of Saraqeb, were kidnapped by Shiite gunmen, apparently in retaliation, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and a rebel commander, who was reached in Turkey. The group reported that 300 were taken hostage, while the commander said about 100 were abducted.

The kidnappings of civilians on both sides have raised fears that the sectarian conflict is escalating, and reports of women and girls being raped are widespread. The United Nations special representative on sexual violence in conflict, Zainab Hawa Bangura, called for the women's release.

The commander, who gave only his first name, Maysara, said the second set of kidnappings took place Thursday in the city of Idlib as workers prepared to commute home to Saraqeb and other villages.

He said the kidnappers were pro-government militiamen from Fouaa, the hometown of most of the Shiite hostages. "They captured the people in front of security forces and the army, who didn't move or react," he said.

On Saturday, most of the women from Saraqeb were released after negotiations, conducted through mediators, between residents of Saraqeb and Fouaa.

"I talked to one of them," Maysara said. "The woman told me that the abductors treated them very well."

The fate of the Shiite hostages was unclear on Saturday.

Fighting raged Saturday around the main airport in the northern city of Aleppo, a strategic site that government troops are fiercely defending.

Israel Radio reported that for the first time, casualties from Syria had been taken to an Israeli hospital for treatment. The report said that five wounded people arrived at the border fence between Israeli and Syrian territory in the northern Golan Heights on Saturday and were taken to a hospital by the Israel Defense Forces.

Also on Saturday, Syria's state news agency said a problem with a high-tension line caused a power failure in Damascus and southern Syria, The Associated Press reported.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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