BEIRUT (AP) — A group of Lebanese Shiites who were kidnapped in Syria were released in good health Friday, three days after gunmen abducted the men as they returned from a religious pilgrimage, officials said.
The kidnappings fueled fears that Lebanon is getting drawn into the bloody conflict in neighboring Syria. In the hours after Tuesday's abductions, protests erupted in Beirut's Shiite-dominated southern suburbs, where residents burned tires and blocked roads.
Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati confirmed the men were released, saying they were "in good health and on their way to Beirut." The pilgrims were believed to have been returning from a trip to visit holy sites in Iran when they were abducted.
The hostages were believed to be 11 Lebanese and one Syrian driver. Lebanese and Syrian officials have blamed Syrian rebels for the kidnappings, but nobody has claimed responsibility.
Sunnis form the backbone of the Syrian revolt, which has unleashed seething sectarian tensions. Syrian President Bashar Assad and the country's ruling elite belong to the tiny Alawite sect, which is an offshoot of Shiism.
The leader of Lebanon's powerful Shiite militant group Hezbollah, which has stood by the Syrian regime, welcomed the pilgrims' release. Speaking by satellite link, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah said the group's support for Syria is firm.
"If you aim to put pressure on our political stance, this will not make any difference," he said of the kidnappings.
The abductions came at a time of deep tension in Lebanon over Syria. The countries share a web of political and sectarian ties and rivalries, which can quickly turn violent. Clashes linked to the Syria conflict have killed at least 10 people in Lebanon the past two weeks.
Nasrallah's comments appeared to be an attempt to de-escalate the recent tensions.
"I also thank all the people who controlled their emotions and responded to our call for calm, wisdom and patience," Nasrallah said, referring to a speech he gave earlier this week calling on his supporters not to take to the streets in anger.
Also Friday, Syrian forces fired tear gas and live ammunition to disperse thousands of protesters calling for Assad's ouster Friday, killing five people in the northern city of Aleppo, activists said.
Crackdowns on protests, as well as other government and rebel attacks, are routine despite the deployment of more than 250 U.N. observers who have fanned out around Syria to monitor a cease-fire brokered by international envoy by Kofi Annan.
Despite the daily violations, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Thursday that there was no "plan B" for the Annan initiative.
Friday's violence during weekly anti-government protests was reported by the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has a network of activists on the ground, and by the opposition Local Coordination Committees.
Aleppo-based activist Mohammad Saeed said more than 10,000 people were protesting in the city.
"The regime is desperately trying to put down the protests in Aleppo but all this violence will backfire," he said. He added that security forces shot dead five people, including a 12-year-old boy, identified as Amir Barakat.
"Wounded and bloodied people are in the streets," Saeed said.
Aleppo is a major economic hub which has remained largely supportive of Assad throughout the uprising but anti-regime sentiment has been on the rise in recent weeks.
Amateur videos posted online by activists showed several wounded people, including a teenage girl, being carried away by other protesters.