Lebanese clan denies it planned to abduct Emiratis

A sectarian clan in Lebanon that kidnapped 20 people in two days has denied a suggestion by a family member that it planned to abduct Emiratis or other Arabian Gulf nationals to use as leverage.

Lebanese masked gunmen from the Al Muqdad clan gather for a press conference in Beirut's southern suburbs.
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DUBAI AND BEIRUT // A sectarian clan in Lebanon that kidnapped 20 people in two days has denied a suggestion by a family member that it planned to abduct Emiratis or other Arabian Gulf nationals to use as leverage.

On Wednesday, the Meqdad clan based in Bekaa began rioting and kidnapping in retaliation for the capture by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) of a clan relative, Hassane Salim Al Meqdad.

The FSA claims Mr Al Meqdad is a member of Hizbollah and a staunch supporter of the president Bashar Al Assad's regime. Hizbollah and his family deny the claims.

In reaction to the violence, the UAE and several other Gulf countries issued stern travel advisories to citizens. Bassam Etani, from the UAE Embassy in Beirut, said the travel warning would remain in place for the next few days.

"Today it's been very quiet here; tomorrow we'll just have to wait and see," Mr Etani said.

There are about 40 Emiratis in Lebanon, mostly on business or for medical reasons.

A Meqdad spokesman yesterday said the clan would cease abductions because they "have a sufficient number of Syrians linked to the Free Syrian Army" in custody.

He also denied that they had planned to kidnap GCC nationals, saying only Turks and Syrian rebels had been their targets.

"Regarding Saudis, Qataris and Gulf nationals, they are not targets for the Meqdad clan," Maher Al Meqdad told Reuters from southern Beirut.

The UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait all issued travel warnings to citizens, with Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, tweeting: "This is the third warning from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

"Unfortunately, the situation in Lebanon is extremely dangerous. I urge my fellow nationals to take this warning with all seriousness."

Mr Etani said the UAE embassy in Beirut remained on high alert.

"We are ready to assist anyone who might need help," he said. "Our offices are open around the clock and we have made arrangements should anyone need immediate flights back to the UAE.

"At the moment we've not had anything more than calls from people just checking in to see how things are."

The Lebanese government has ordered more military on to the streets to keep the situation under control and the prime minister, Najib Miqati, said Wednesday's "developments will not be repeated".

Despite such assurances, Syrians fear further kidnappings and attacks. An obscure Lebanese group calling itself Mukhtar Al-Thaqfi Brigade claiming it had also kidnapped members of the FSA.

Such news has prompted Syrians on holiday or taking refuge in Lebanon to move to safer areas, such as the mountains and Jounieh – Christian areas where they feel more secure.

One Syrian visitor to Beirut has not stepped outside since the kidnappings.

"After what happened I was warned by Lebanese friends to stay off the streets. So, I stayed in Wednesday night and today, and I'm not going out until it is safe," said Munir Abdulghani, who works as an engineer in Saudi Arabia.

The kidnappings had an immediate effect on hotel reservations in the capital.

"Because of what happened we have had a lot of cancellations for Eid," said Michelle Naaman, the director of marketing for Monroe Hotel in Beirut.

"I think basically a lot of people were waiting to see if the situation improved so they could come for the holiday, but I'm sure they've now changed their minds.

"One Qatari man was supposed to fly in on Friday but was called [by the Qatari government] and told he couldn't travel. He was given no choice."

Pierre Ashkar, head of the Hotel Owners Association, played down the effect of the ban, pointing to earlier travel warnings by GCC states in May and June.

"It is a real minority [of tourists] – a question of a few hundred, not a few thousand people," Mr Ashkar said.

But it is business as usual for local airlines, and Etihad Airways has said its flights will continue to operate between Abu Dhabi and Beirut as normal.

"Passengers with tickets purchased on or before August 16, 2012, with travel up to and including August 31, 2012, can [subject to availability of the same fare] change their flight dates at no cost to no later than September 30, 2012, or cancel the ticket and have it refunded," the airline said.

A spokesman for Emirates Airline said it was also operating normally.

"The current unrest has not caused any disruption to Emirates flight operations," he said. "Emirates continues to monitor the situation closely."


* Paul Cochrane reported from Beirut. Additional reporting by Reuters and Associated Press

Passengers wishing to change their Etihad flights should call the contact centre (02 599 0000 in the UAE or 01 989 393 in Lebanon).