By BRIAN MURPHY, Associated Press
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."
In Amman, Jordan, the highest-ranking political defector from Assad's regime, former prime minister Riad Hijab, called for other top figures in the government and military to join the rebel side.
"The regime is on the verge of collapse morally and economically, in addition to cracks in the military," Hijab told a news conference in his first public remarks since fleeing to Jordan last week with his family under the protection of the Free Syrian Army.
He said he felt "pain in his soul" over the regime's shelling and other attacks on rebel strongholds as the government stepped up its military offensive. Activists say more than 20,000 people have been killed in the violence since March 2011.
"I was powerless to stop the injustice," Hijab said, speaking in front of the rebel flag. Hours later, the U.S. lifted sanctions on Hijab that sought to freeze his assets.
"Syria is full of honorable officials and military leaders who are waiting for the chance to join the revolution," he said, claiming that Assad's forces only control 30 percent of Syria. "I urge the army to follow the example of Egypt's and Tunisia's armies — take the side of the people."
Hijab is a Sunni from the eastern province of Deir el-Zour, where rebels claimed to have shot down a regime MiG-23 warplane on Monday and captured the pilot. In the video claiming to show the captive pilot, a rebel insists that he would be treated according to the Geneva Convention — an apparent reply to international denunciations over recent execution-style killings of suspected regime supporters.
The authenticity of the video — or the veracity of the rebel claims of downing the warplane — could not be independently confirmed. Syria says the pilot ejected after a technical malfunction in the fighter jet.
The latest rebel video — broadcast on the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya channel — claimed to show a Lebanese Shiite who said he was among 1,500 Hezbollah fighters sent to Syria on Aug. 3 to aid Assad's military. The authenticity of that video also could not be independently verified.
"Most of those who entered were snipers," said the captive, who identified himself as Hassane Salim al-Mikdad, and said his group was told by Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah to help "the Shiite army against Sunni gangs." The captive appeared to have bruises on his face. Three masked gunmen stood behind him while a man off-camera asked questions.
The Syrian opposition has repeatedly accused Hezbollah of sending fighters to Syria, which the militant group denies. Hezbollah also said it "categorically denies" any links to al-Mikdad.
Abductions claimed by Syrian rebels have increased sharply as part of an apparent new tactic to rattle the regime and its core supporters outside the country.