BEIRUT -- The Syrian opposition Wednesday condemned the kidnapping of Lebanese Shiite pilgrims near the northern Syrian city of Aleppo a day earlier and called for their release. Meanwhile, a top Lebanese official claimed that the abductees had been found and would be freed soon.
"The Syrian National Council condemns any kidnappings, assault or terrorizing of our Lebanese brothers and demands their immediate release," a widely reported statement by the main opposition Syrian National Council said, urging rebels in the Free Syrian Army to secure the release of the captives.
The abductees were among about 50 pilgrims traveling in buses back to Lebanon from Iran via Turkey and Syria when they were abducted by armed rebels, families of the kidnapped men told media organizations. Female pilgrims in the group were let go and arrived back in Lebanon overnight.
There were conflicting reports about the number of abductees: Lebanese official media initially reported that 13 men had been kidnapped. Syrian state media reported 11 men were abducted with a Syrian driver.
The Free Syrian Army denied it was behind the kidnappings, Arab media reports said. Some of its leaders reportedly even blamed the abduction on the Syrian government of Bashar Assad, but even the Syrian National Council dismissed the idea of the regime having a hand in the incident.
The Free Syrian Army is an umbrella group created by army officers outside Syria in a bid to bring rebels under a centralized command, and many rebels appear to operate outside its control, muddling the question of who is responsible.
The kidnap ordeal further heightened tensions in Lebanon, which has witnessed clashes between groups opposing and supporting Assad over the last several days.
Lebanese Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour announced Wednesday that the abductees had been found, saying that he was in touch with a number of Arab officials -- including his Turkish counterpart and the head of the Arab League -- to try to secure the captives' speedy return to Lebanon, according to Lebanon's National News Agency.
The report provided no further information on who was holding the captives, but quoted Mansour as saying they would be released "within hours."
The developments in the Lebanese kidnapping case come amid claims from an official at the Iranian Embassy in Damascus that three Iranian truck drivers were also abducted Monday, shortly after they entered Syria from Turkey.
Iranian diplomat Abbas Golru said the three men were kidnapped Monday night after they traveled into Syria, despite warnings from the embassy against Iranians traveling by land in the crisis-torn country, Press TV reported. The Iranian television network published the names of the three alleged abductees.
The reported incident would not be the first time Iranians have been abducted in Syria: In December, seven Iranian nationals described by Iranian authorities as "engineers" were kidnapped in Homs province. Two of them were reportedly set free through Turkish mediation earlier this month.
Meanwhile, opposition activists reported fresh violence across Syria, including shelling and raids. By early afternoon Wednesday, the Local Coordination Committees activist network reported 18 killings nationwide, including three young men reportedly slain in Deir Ezzor after being ambushed by security forces.
Another group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, claimed that Syrian troops were shelling the rebel stronghold of Rastan in Homs province but stopped when U.N. monitors drove into the area. Amateur video uploaded to YouTube also purported to show shelling in Homs on Wednesday.
-- Alexandra Sandels
Photo: A woman whose husband was among the Lebanese Shiites kidnapped in Syria reacts as she visits Rafik Hariri International Airport in Beirut early Wednesday to ask women who had been released by the armed men about her husband. Credit: Hussein Malla / Associated Press