Syrian rebels seek new leverage with abductions

BEIRUT (AP) — With gunmen standing in the background, a Syrian rebel video purported Tuesday to show their latest captive: a lone Lebanese Shiite suspected of links to pro-regime Hezbollah whose abduction appears part of a wider strategy shift to target perceived backers of Bashar Assad.

A series of hostage-takings aimed at Assad’s few remaining supporters — Iranians and Lebanese Shiites — has sought to both send a message about the rebels’ reach and try to buff their image with seeming propaganda stunts such as captives praising their treatment and denouncing Assad’s regime.

It also underscores the broader regional rifts exposed by Syria’s civil war. Sunni powers such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia are strongly with the rebels, and Shiite giant Iran and its proxy Hezbollah in Lebanon are standing by Assad, whose minority Alawite community is an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

The abductions suggest the Syrian conflict is taking on increasing sectarian overtones as the country lurches deeper into crisis. The U.N. says an estimated 2.5 million Syrians have been injured, displaced or face problems securing food or other necessities, a sharp rise from about 1 million three months ago.

“There is an ongoing humanitarian crisis,” said the U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos after meetings in Damascus to try to open routes for more international aid into Syria. “It is important that the fighting stops.”

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