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Extortion, Sectarianism Rife in Lawless Northern Syria
By Alison Tahmizian Meuse

BEIRUT -- The Syrian regime's loss of control over northern areas has created a power vacuum that feeds extortion and sectarianism, exposing civilians to criminals and extremists, residents and activists say.

They say a major fear of residents are checkpoints manned by armed militia of unknown allegiance.

On Friday, a group of mainly Christian men were still being held after about 30 gunmen abducted them on Monday near the northwestern town of Saraqeb on a bus bound from Beirut to Aleppo in northern Syria.

"We went through many (rebel) Free Syrian Army (FSA) checkpoints in villages in Homs and Hama without any problem. But outside Saraqeb, we found ourselves at a strange roadblock," a witness told AFP, giving his name only as "Mark".

"Usually the rebels search for soldiers, but this time was different. Three gunmen boarded the bus and told the Christians to raise their hands."

Nine Christian men, including seven ethnic Armenians, were ordered off the bus while the gunmen checked IDs, according to Mark, who was mistaken as the driver's assistant and spared interrogation.

"Get off. You're with Bashar too," they told a Kurdish man who tried to intervene, referring to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad.

Mark, 26, said that a bearded man wearing a traditional robe boarded the bus and ordered unveiled women to cover their hair, calling them whores.

"He pointed to one woman wearing a cross and told her to hand it over. He grabbed it and started stamping on it."

At that point a veiled women interceded: "My son, we never used to speak or think like this in Syria. These people are our neighbours and they have nothing to do with politics."

"You don't know these people. They are kuffar (infidels)," he retorted.

From his vantage point, Mark said he saw the gunmen stop another bus and yank out two women by their hair.

A Syrian rights activist familiar with the incident, who spoke on condition of anonymity fearing retribution, said the gunmen were members of the extreme Islamist Al-Nusra Front.

"Al-Nusra is responsible. They took the men because they were Christian and the Kurd because he protested what they were doing."

The next day, one man in his sixties was freed and sent to Aleppo, badly beaten, to secure a ransom of 3.3 million Syrian pounds ($48,000/37,000 euros) just to launch negotiations for the release of the remaining men.

He was told that the hostages, including his son, would be killed if the demand was not met.

A source in Aleppo's Armenian community said negotiations were underway to secure the release of the group, which they believe is being held by Jund Allah, or "soldiers of God", which is close to the Al-Nusra Front.

As of Friday, the men were believed to be in Taftanaz, about 15 kilometres (nine miles) north of Saraqeb, the rights activist said.

Observers say that while extortion has become rampant in Syria, sectarianism is also mounting in a majority-Sunni country sharply divided over the ruling regime, which is dominated by Assad's minority Alawite community.

The rights activist said Islamist fighters are becoming increasingly influential in areas outside regime control.

"These people are very dangerous for the Syrian revolution because they don't understand what democracy is. It's not why they are here... they just want to fight the kuffar."

He predicted a clash between the FSA and Al-Nusra Front, the dominant Islamist group, in the coming weeks.

Others say that while an Islamist dimension exists, it should not be overstated, especially when it appears alongside crime.

"Some armed groups are revolutionaries, other armed groups are just criminals, and some revolutionaries use criminal methods," Aleppo opposition activist Abu Hisham told AFP.

"This is not about religion, this is business," said one member of Aleppo's Armenian community.

"They know Christians have money and will pay," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity, adding that Saraqeb is notorious for kidnappings. "Clearly there is an Islamist colour to the revolution, but this is not the whole story."

After attacks on regular army checkpoints in Saraqeb on Thursday, a video posted on the Internet appeared to show opposition fighters executing soldiers who had surrendered.

For ordinary Syrians, the distinction between thieves and Islamists is irrelevant.

Mary, a neighbour of one of the hostages from the buses, said she was planning to leave Aleppo before the kidnapping.

"I can't sleep at night because of the mortar fire. I planned to go to Latakia (on the coast), but after the kidnapping I'm afraid to travel anywhere."

Even the road to Aleppo airport is too risky, the 24-year-old said.

"I feel we're trapped in a prison.

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