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Syria war leads to rise of kidnappings in Lebanon

Wednesday - 11/13/2013, 4:50am  ET

In this Thursday, Nov. 7, 2013 photo, a Lebanese released hostage pharmacist, Wissam Khatib, speaks on his mobile phone outside his pharmacy, in Zahleh town, in the Bekaa valley, east Lebanon, Thursday, Nov. 7, 2013. Lebanon has seen a dramatic spike in kidnappings in an unusual knock-on effect from the civil war in neighboring Syria. Gangs whose usual business of cross-border smuggling has suffered amid Syria’s fight have turned instead to snatching well-off Lebanese businessmen for ransoms. The wave of abductions illustrates how Lebanon, with its weak security hold, is vulnerable in multiple ways to the storms next door. For three weeks, kidnappers held Khatib, threatening to kill him and his children if his family didn't pay their ransom of tens of thousands of dollars. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

Associated Press

BEIRUT (AP) -- For nearly three weeks, kidnappers held Lebanese pharmacist Wissam Khatib, threatening to kill him and his children if his family didn't pay a ransom of tens of thousands of dollars.

During his captivity, Khatib -- often shackled and blindfolded -- went through depression, terror, pain. But, he says, the trauma was not a surprise. A well-to-do pharmacist in the eastern Lebanese city of Zahleh, the 40-year-old Khatib knew he was a target.

He had escaped one kidnapping attempt in August, when he saw masked gunmen approaching his pharmacy and fled before they saw him. He expected them to return, knowing that Lebanon's weak security forces couldn't help him.

"The state knew, security forces knew, but they didn't help me at all," Khatib told The Associated Press.

Hostage-taking of wealthy businessmen in Lebanon has risen more than seven-fold in an unlikely knock-on effect from Syria's civil war. Security officials say gangs who once made their money smuggling fuel and contraband through the porous Syria-Lebanon border have watched their trade wither because of the violence, so they are turning to kidnapping to make a profit.

Lebanon is suffering multiple woes from the war next door. The tiny country, with a population of 4.5 million, has been flooded with an estimated 1 million Syrians fleeing the conflict. Also, tensions between its Sunni and Shiite communities have spiked, sometimes exploding into deadly clashes, mirroring the sectarian hatreds in Syria, where Sunnis largely support the rebellion, and Shiites and the Alawite sect -- an offshoot of Shiism -- back President Bashar Assad.

In the latest violence, a Sunni sheik, Saad El-Deen Ghieh, was shot to death in his car Tuesday by gunmen in the northern city of Tripoli, scene of frequent clashes between Sunnis and Alawites in connection with Syria's war.

In contrast, the kidnapping wave -- a more indirect repercussion -- illustrates the multiple, unexpected ways that Lebanon, with its fragile hold on security, is vulnerable to the turmoil across the border. There are fears the problem could spread -- and that abductions could spread beyond criminal activity and into political motives -- as Syria's war, which began in March 2011, continues.

"The reason why there are so many kidnappings is because the state is failing. State security is unable and cannot work," warned Lebanese security analyst Nizar Abdul-Qader.

Security officials acknowledge they are overwhelmed by the mounting problems rooted in Syria's conflict.

"The weight on the state is heavy -- it's above what the state can handle," said one official in the Interior Ministry, which in charge of security forces. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the press. He said such kidnappings for ransom in the past were "very, very rare."

Lebanon's Internal Security Forces recorded 73 kidnappings between August 2011 and September 2013. In contrast, there were 14 cases total in the previous five years.

Most of the abductions take place in Lebanon's eastern Bekaa Valley, where heavily armed clans hold sway, some of them involved in the smuggling trade.

Gangs once made their money sneaking cheap cigarettes, fuel, clothes and other items into Lebanon from Syria. But now, unable to freely pass through areas in Syria that have become war zones, they've turned their hand to kidnappings at home, three security officials told AP, speaking on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to talk to the press. They've found accomplices among Syrian and Lebanese men struggling in Lebanon's economy, hit hard by the war next door, the officials said.

The kidnapping is creating a sense of palpable panic. Lebanese media routinely runs pleas from families of the abducted.

On Oct. 12, the family of one seized man, Ramez Bahnam, went on TV to plead with the kidnappers to release him, saying his health would deteriorate. Hours later, they asked the kidnappers "to ensure he is taking his medicine regularly." Bahnam was released eight days later.

The security officials said most kidnappings end with ransoms being paid, usually less than the high initial demands made by kidnappers, though families are usually reluctant to acknowledge paying, in part of out of fears of becoming repeat targets.

Khatib, the pharmacist, said he was snatched in late September. As he opened his pharmacy in the early morning, masked gunmen screeched up in a car and forced him in. During 17 days in captivity, he was blindfolded and shackled, with the gunmen telling him they would kill his children if his family didn't pay the ransom. They also called his family, threatening to kill him.

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