BEIRUT — Security forces have arrested the main suspect in the 2011 kidnapping of seven Estonian tourists and the more recent abduction of a Lebanese citizen that led to a wave of tit-for-tat kidnappings in areas near the Syrian border, police officials said Thursday.
The officials said Hussein Hojeiri was detained two days ago in the eastern Bekaa Valley. They said he confessed to carrying out the 2011 kidnapping, purportedly on the orders of an Iraqi al-Qaida figure. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity in line with government regulations.
The Estonians were cycling in the Bekaa Valley when armed men wearing masks kidnapped them in March 2011. They were released nearly four months later.
Another suspected was arrested earlier in the case, but police officials said Hojeiri was considered the main kidnapper.
Khaled Hamid, another fugitive suspected of being involved in the kidnapping, was killed in February while troops were trying to detain him in the Bekaa Valley. During the ambush, gunmen killed two soldiers and wounded several others in the town of Arsal.
The officials say Hojeiri also is suspected of being involved in the recent kidnapping of Lebanese citizen Hussein Jaafar, whose abduction led to a spate of kidnappings between members of his Shiite Muslim tribe and Sunnis from Arsal.
Lebanese Shiites and Sunnis are divided over Syria's civil war, with many Shiites backing President Bashar Assad's regime while a large numbers of Sunnis back the opposition. Lebanon and Syria share a complex network of political and sectarian ties, and many fear that violence in Syria will spread to Lebanon.
On Thursday, Human Rights Watch said in a report that the Lebanese government had failed to take adequate measures "to protect against, deter, and punish retaliatory kidnappings along sectarian lines in border regions." Human Rights Watch said it interviewed both victims and family members who carried out retaliatory kidnappings, prompted by alleged detentions and kidnappings of their relatives by Syrian government forces and armed opposition groups.
It said Lebanese government authorities have helped to facilitate the release of victims kidnapped by families in Lebanon in some cases, but have not taken law enforcement measures either to prevent kidnappings or to prosecute the kidnappers in the cases Human Rights Watch documented in the border regions.
"The Lebanese government needs to end a situation in which families desperate to have their kidnapped or detained relatives released resort to vigilante kidnappings in return," said Nadim Houry, Middle East deputy director at Human Rights Watch. "The government should keep working to secure the victims' release but must also send a clear signal that these abductions are crimes that will be investigated and prosecuted."
Lebanese authorities should investigate, arrest, and prosecute the people responsible for the kidnappings, Human Rights Watch said.
Also Thursday, a man threw a grenade into a street in the Ein el-Hilweh refugee camp near the southern port city of Sidon, wounding seven people, including a young girl who is in critical condition, according to Munir Makeah, an official with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah movement.
Rival Palestinian factions often clash at the camp, which is the largest in Lebanon.