Rebels in northern Syria have kidnapped at least 11 Lebanese men and their Syrian driver in Aleppo province as they were headed back home by bus from a pilgrimage in Iran, Lebanon's national news agency says.
Opposition activists said the abductions prompted raids by Syrian security forces in Aleppo.
One man who refused to give his name said: "My two brothers-in-law were among 12 people kidnapped by the Free Syrian Army in Aleppo as they were heading back to Beirut on board a bus after visiting religious sites in Iran.
"The women who were with them were allowed to go free."
Lebanon's state news agency put the number of those abducted at 13 while Syrian media said an "armed terrorist gang" had kidnapped 11 Lebanese and their Syrian driver.
The brother of Abbas Shaayb, who organised the pilgrimage, said the women were staying in a hotel in Aleppo.
"Let's see what the friends of the Free Syrian Army in Lebanon are going to do now," said the man, referring to the Sunni-led opposition in Lebanon that has backed the 14-month uprising in neighbouring Syria.
The kidnappings prompted families of the abducted Shia Muslims to gather in Beirut's mainly Shia southern suburbs to demand their release.
The protesters closed down several roads, including the old airport road, with burning tyres and garbage bins.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah appealed for restraint in an address broadcast by Lebanese TV stations, saying: "...any act of violence or individual action will not help this case at all".
The kidnappings were sure to further inflame sectarian tension in Lebanon, where clashes between the pro- and anti-Assad camps have left at least 12 people dead in the past 10 days.
The abductions came hours after a court released on bail a Sunni Muslim whose arrest earlier this month sparked unrest in a Sunni region of north Lebanon that backs the revolt against Assad, a member of the minority Alawite sect.
Deir al-Zor shooting
In a separate incident on Tuesday, two people were killed in eastern Syria after police opened fire on a crowd who came out to welcome UN ceasefire observers, a rebel official said.
There was no independent confirmation of the incident that was said to have occured in the province of Deir al-Zor.
"As soon as the UN convoy entered Al-Busaira, a jubilant crowd of hundreds came out to welcome them. It was not minutes before they came under fire," Abu Laila, a Free Syrian Army (FSA) official, said by phone from the town.
"The observers immediately left Al-Busaira. We called them to come back but they refused."
Fighting ensued between President Bashar al-Assad's forces and FSA fighters based in the town, Abu Laila said.
Another opposition source in Deir al-Zor said that government forces surrounding Al-Busaira began firing anti-aircraft guns at the town.
The reports of violence come three days after a suicide attack hit the main town of in Deir al-Zor, killing at least seven people and wounding 100 others, according to a Syrian foreign ministry spokesman.
Government troops have been battling a widening uprising against Assad for 14 months.
Al-Busaira is one of many towns and villages under rebel control in Deir al-Zor, a large oil-producing province bordering Iraq, that have been attacked repeatedly in the last four months by government troops trying to regain control.
Assad, a member of Syria's Alawite minority, had relied on a network of alliances with Sunni Muslim tribes forged by his late father, Hafez al-Assad, to keep Deir al-Zor under control.
But these understandings began breaking down after the province erupted in mass demonstrations in July demanding Assad's removal, and tanks were sent to quell the protest movement.
There are 257 unarmed United Nations observers in Syria, sent to enforce an internationally brokered ceasefire that has been regularly violated by Assad's forces and rebels.
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|F. William Engdahl|