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Syrian refugees in Lebanon face sectarian backlash

Incidents of violence and kidnappings targeting Syrian refugees have increased following the killing of Lebanese soldiers by militants
A Syrian woman sits next to her children sleeping on the street in Hamra Street in the Lebanese capital, Beirut, on 29 August, 2014 (AFP)

The kidnap and killing of Lebanese security forces by Lebanese and Syrian militants has sparked new tensions in Lebanon, including a backlash against Syrian refugees and a string of sectarian kidnappings.

Relatives of the missing soldiers and policemen, who were kidnapped during fierce clashes in the Lebanese border town of Arsal last month, have blocked roads in protest and even carried out counter-kidnaps.

On Monday, a security source said two people from majority Sunni Arsal had been kidnapped by the family of soldier Ali al-Masri.

One of the negotiators involved in the talks aimed at solving the hostage crisis confirmed the report: "The family is asking the people of Arsal to pressure the (militant) kidnappers to release their son, and it insists it will not release its hostages until (the soldiers) are free."

Elsewhere in the majority Shiite Bekaa valley, tit-for-tat kidnappings took place on Monday, according to security sources, who said the army is trying to resolve the spiralling crisis.

The incidents follow confirmation that a second Lebanese soldier being held by militants from the Islamic State (IS) has been beheaded.

The incitement to kidnap has crept into the rhetoric of media personalities, where one TV producer called for, in a tweet, the kidnapping of Turkish, Qatari and Saudi nationals to exchange them for Lebanese soldiers – implying that these states are backing militates and therefore their citizens are fair game.

Lebanon is hosting more than 1.1 million Syrian refugees, where tensions were already soaring among members of the different Lebanese communities over the four-year conflict in Syria.

The crisis has prompted a backlash against Syrian refugees in Shiite parts of Lebanon, with tents in informal camps being set alight and hundreds of Syrians sheltered in the Bekaa valley fleeing for fear of attack.

Behind the scenes meanwhile, there are reportedly secret discussions between Hezbollah and the Syrian militants group al-Nusra Front, to secure an exchange of captured Nusra militants with the bodies of Hezbollah fighters killed in Syria, sources told the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper.

The Syrian conflict has exacerbated existing sectarian tensions in Lebanon, where most Sunni residents back the Syrian uprising and Shiites generally support Syria's President Bashar al-Assad.

The August fighting in Arsal was the most serious border incident in Lebanon since the Syrian war began next door in March 2011.

Lebanese gather in support of Syrian refugees in Beirut on 9 April, 2014, holding a placard that reads "The refugee is not your enemy, your enemy is the reason he sought refuge" (AFP)

With the ensuing hostage crisis unresolved to date despite ongoing Qatari mediation, reports of the soldier's beheading first emerged on Saturday, prompting angry Lebanese to cut roads with burning tyres in protest.

The official National News Agency meanwhile reported that refugees in several camps across the country -- especially those in Shiite areas whose residents support Assad ally Hezbollah -- had been told to evacuate their tents.

An AFP journalist in the eastern Bekaa valley saw Syrian refugees dismantle their tents and leave in their thousands for northern Lebanon, the west of the Bekaa and Beirut.

Beatings

Incidents of violence targeting Syrians have also been reported.

George Ghattas, a farmer from the village of Taybeh in the Bekaa valley, told AFP he saw a group of men attacking the Syrian guard of an unfinished construction site.

"The man then fled," Ghattas said.

In southern Lebanon, Syrian refugees hosted in some 100 tents near the city of Tyre were given 48 hours to evacuate their camp.

"We don't want to have terror cells developing in big camps," Burj al-Shimali mayor Ali Deeb told AFP on Monday. "We have given the Syrians living in the camp 48 hours to leave."

And in Beirut, a witness who spoke to AFP on condition of anonymity said he saw a group of some five young men surround and beat a Syrian man in his early twenties, after they discovered where he was from.

"They started shouting: 'Are you Syrian or not?'" the witness said, adding that "five or six of the guys started beating him, taking turns to hit him."

Amid the rise in tensions, the authorities have appealed for calm, calling on the Lebanese to refrain from revenge attacks.

"The Syrian refugees are our family, they asked for our help, so we assisted them," said Prime Minister Tammam Salam in a televised speech.

Expressing "feelings of sadness and grief" for the suffering of the families of the kidnapped soldiers, Salam said that "what has been happening on the streets in the past few days damages the memory of the martyrs... while plunging the country into deep danger."

But in spite of the appeal, there was little sign the tensions could be immediately dispelled.

Speaking to AFP, Human Rights Watch researcher Lama Fakih confirmed the spike in violence: "We have seen a string of retaliatory measures against Syrian refugees in Lebanon taken by individuals and municipalities."

"This is happening countrywide," Fakih said.

Despite the presence of campaigns that seek to remind people that Syrian refugees are primarily victims that should be helped not oppressed, with some activists highlighting how the Syrian people welcomed their Lebanese counterparts during Israel's 2006 military offensive, vigilante notes continue to spread.

One example, pictured below, warns that it is prohibited for any Syrian to be present in their area, otherwise they – and anyone who aids them – would face beating, humiliation and be kicked out.