DAMASCUS (AFP) – The kidnapping of two Syrian bishops, reportedly by Chechen fighters, sparked international concern on Tuesday, as rebels battled regime and Hezbollah forces in Homs province, a watchdog said.
In Israel, meanwhile, a senior military intelligence official said President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has used chemical weapons, including sarin, against rebels on several occasions in recent months.
Washington has said the use of chemical weapons in Syria would be a “game changer” but Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel said in Israel on Monday it has yet to reach a definitive conclusion on the issue.
Bishop Yohanna Ibrahim, head of Aleppo’s Syriac Orthodox diocese, and Bishop Boulos Yaziji, head of the Greek Orthodox diocese in the same city, were kidnapped on Monday, according to church sources and Syria’s state news agency SANA.
“The news which we have received is that an armed group… (of) Chechens stopped the car and kidnapped the two bishops while the driver was killed,” an official from the Syriac Orthodox diocese said.
A source in the Greek Orthodox diocese, speaking to AFP on condition of anonymity, said Ibrahim was coming back from an area along the Turkish border, where he had collected Yaziji.
A group of armed men stopped their car near Aleppo, forcing the driver and a fourth person out. The driver was subsequently shot in the head, the source said.
“According to this person, the kidnappers spoke classical Arabic and appeared to be foreigners. They told them that they were Chechen jihadists,” he told AFP.
The kidnapping prompted Russia’s Orthodox Church to call for the release of the men, and the Vatican said Pope Francis was “following developments with deep participation and intense prayer for their well-being and liberation”.
Greece said Foreign Minister Dimitris Avramopoulos had spoken to Syrian opposition leader George Sabra, a prominent Christian who had pledged to act swiftly to find and free the men.
Sabra warned the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah its involvement in fighting in Homs province was a “declaration of war” after his appointment as interim leader of the National Coalition on Monday.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and activists say Hezbollah is fighting alongside Syrian troops in the Qusayr area of the central province.
“The army is leading the campaign on the northern and eastern fronts, and Hezbollah is leading the fight on the southern and western fronts,” Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman said.
A Syrian military source insisted, meanwhile, that the capture of the town of Qusayr, a rebel stronghold, was “just days away, at most”.
Hezbollah’s role in the fighting has inflamed tensions inside Lebanon, despite its insistence it is only acting to protect Lebanese citizens in Syrian border villages.
Lebanon’s Salafist Sunni Sheikh Ahmed al-Assir has urged his followers to join the fight against Syrian regime and Hezbollah in Qusayr, calling it “a religious duty on every Muslim who is able to do so”.
The conflict, which began in March 2011 and has killed more than 70,000 people, has regularly spilled across the border, with two new mortar rounds hitting the eastern Lebanese region of Hermel on Tuesday.
A senior Israeli military official said meanwhile that Damascus had used chemical weapons against rebels.
“To the best of our professional understanding, the regime has made use of deadly chemical weapons against the rebels in a number of incidents in the last few months,” Brigadier General Itai Brun, head of military intelligence research and analysis, told a Tel Aviv security conference.
“Which chemical weapons? Apparently sarin. The regime is also using chemical weapons that neutralise and are not fatal.
“The reduced pupils, the foam coming out of the mouth and other additional signs provide evidence that deadly chemical weapons have been used,” he said, indicating the symptoms were observed in photographs.
His remarks came as US Defence Secretary Hagel wrapped up a three-day visit to Israel that focused on Syria’s conflict, but there was no immediate comment from his entourage on the claim.
The regime and rebels have traded accusations of the use of chemical weapons, and the UN has tasked a team to investigate the claims.
At least 134 people were killed throughout Syria on Monday, according to the Observatory, including 50 rebels, 47 civilians and 38 soldiers.
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