BEIRUT and AMMAN, Jordan -- Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah on Tuesday denounced the reported kidnapping of a group of Lebanese Shiite Muslim pilgrims by rebels in Syria while also appealing for calm, as the Syrian crisis showed further signs of spilling into Lebanon.
The chief of the powerful Shiite militant group condemned the reported abduction of 13 Lebanese men in Syria's Aleppo province in a telephone interview on Hezbollah's TV station, Al Manar. He called on the government to do its utmost to get the men released.
The reported kidnapping comes on the heels of deadly Syria-linked clashes in Lebanon in recent days. Tensions are running high in the country, which has long been beset by sectarian conflicts.
Lebanese media reports said members of the rebel Free Syrian Army kidnapped the men as they were returning home in buses from a pilgrimage in Iran. Women, the reports said, were allowed to leave.
"The Free Syrian Army had stopped a bus carrying at least 50 Lebanese citizens who were returning from a visit to holy sites in Iran," Lebanon's official National News Agency reported (link in Arabic). "Thirteen men were forced to step down and detained while the women were left to complete their way to Lebanon."
The official Syrian Arab News Agency, meanwhile, reported that 11 Lebanese and a Syrian bus driver were kidnapped by "an armed terrorist group." The report said 52 people were traveling in two buses in the town of Salameh in Aleppo province.
An alleged Syrian rebel commander reached in the province refused to comment on the reported abduction.
"We don't confirm or deny," Ammar Wawi, the commander of the Tahrir al-Shamal Brigade, told The Times. "We demand first that the Syrian army stop shelling the Azaz area of Aleppo, and then we will have announcements. We are demanding that the shelling of Azaz stop immediately."
Later, however, Lebanon's Al Jadeed television station reported that a leader in the Free Syrian Army had denied that the group was behind the kidnapping and accused the Syrian regime of the abduction.
An activist reached in Azaz, close to where the kidnapping occurred, said the town came under heavy shelling by government troops Tuesday night.
"[It's from] four sides of the town," the activist told The Times. "The most heavy shelling is from the western side. Fifteen people have been wounded so far."
The Local Coordination Committees, an opposition network in Syria, said columns of smoke were rising over the town Tuesday night, and reported the arrival of "massive military reinforcements."
In Beirut, protesters briefly blocked roads with burning tires in the southern suburbs of the capital, a Shiite area, in anger over the news of the kidnapping. But roads were soon reopened after Nasrallah urged calm and asked followers to not obstruct traffic.
"We want cooperation from people and we call them not to cut roads or burn tires," he said, according to Al Manar.
The kidnapping threatened to trigger sectarian tensions and fueled concerns that Lebanon getting drawn into the crisis of its bigger neighbor. Nasrallah warned supporters not to engage in revenge attacks against Syrians.
Hezbollah and some other factions have backed Syrian President Bashar Assad as he tries quell a revolt, now in its 15th month. Assad is a member of the Alawite sect, a Shiite offshoot. Most Sunni groups in Lebanon, on the other hand, want Assad overthrown.
-- Alexandra Sandels in Beirut and Rima Marrouch in Amman
Photo: Lebanese security forces supervise the opening of a street blocked by Shiite Muslims in a southern suburb of Beirut on Tuesday to protest the reported kidnapping of Lebanese men in Syria. Credit: Bilal Hussein / Associated Press