Shi'ite masked gunmen from the Meqdad clan, gather at the Meqdad family's association headquarters in the southern suburbs in Beirut
Shi'ite masked gunmen from the Meqdad clan, gather at the family's headquarters in southern suburbs in Beirut (Reuters)

Apowerful clan in Lebanon responsible for kidnapping 40 Syrians it says are affiliated to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) has called an end to its "military" operations.

The al-Meqdad clan carried out the abductions in retaliation for the detention of a relative by FSA rebels in Syria.

"We have halted all military operations because we have a sufficient number of Syrian captives," the head of the clan, Maher al-Meqdad, said.

Meqdad backtracked on earlier claims that it would also target nationals from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. "We consider them guests in our country. They are welcome in Lebanon," he said.

Who are the Meqdad?

The Meqdad family appears to be well-organised and equipped. Several members have appeared on Lebanese TV channels dressed in military fatigues and armed with assault rifles to demand the release of their relative, 39-year-old Hassan Meqdad in Syria.

The Shiite clan has been described as a large and powerful family with close ties to Hezbollah and leading members of the government. The family has denied having links to both the political or militia branch of Hezbollah.

Soon after the clan threatened to target citizens from the Gulf countries and Turkey, the Saudi Embassy in Beirut told its nationals to exit Lebanon immediately. The United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar and Kuwait did likewise.

The Lebanese prime minister Najib Mikati condemned the kidnappings but the government - dominated by Hezbollah and its allies - refrained from directly intervening to stop the kidnaping spree.

Sectarian tensions

There are growing fears the Syrian conflict could trigger further sectarian tensions in a country where Shia and Sunni each roughly represent 27 per cent of the population.

Even though the Lebanese government's official line is neutrality on the Syrian crisis to "avoid turning the country into a proxy of regional and international conflicts", Hezbollah openly supports President Bashar al-Assad.

Clashes between anti and pro-Assad supporters have been reported in Lebanon.

Tensions have been further heightened when Syrian fighter jets struck a house in the town of Azaz, north of Aleppo, where 11 Lebanese hostages were being held.

Louay Moqdad, a spokesman for the Free Syrian Army, said two hostages were injured and four were thought to be trapped under rubble in the damaged basement.