Syrian rebels enter Lebanon, clash with Hezbollah

Casualties on both sides after overnight battle near Baalbek

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BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian rebels fought with the gunmen from the Hezbollah militia in a deadly clash on Lebanese soil, a security official and local media said Sunday, in the latest sign Syria’s civil war is spilling over the country’s borders.

It was the worst clash on Lebanese territory between the two sides since the outbreak of the Syria conflict more than two years ago. The violence highlighted the growing risk the fighting in Syria poses to fragile Lebanon, whose volatile sectarian makeup mirrors that of its neighbor.

Hezbollah and Syria’s rebels fight on opposite sides inside Syria, and tensions between them have risen sharply since the Lebanese militia stepped up its armed support for President Bashar Assad’s regime last month.

Rebel fighters have threatened to attack Hezbollah bases in Lebanon, and on Saturday 18 rockets and mortar rounds hit Lebanon’s eastern Baalbek region, a Hezbollah stronghold.

In the night from Saturday to Sunday, Hezbollah apparently encircled and ambushed a group of Syrian rebels and allied Lebanese fighters whom they suspected of rocketing Baalbek a day earlier, the Lebanese security official said. He spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations and because details were not yet clear.

He said a Hezbollah fighter and several rebels were killed in the clashes in a remote area between Baalbek and the Syrian border.

The Lebanese TV station Al-Mayadeen, seen as sympathetic to the Syrian regime, quoted Lebanese security officials as saying 17 fighters from Jabhat al-Nusra, a rebel group linked to the global al-Qaida terror network, were killed in the fighting.

The growing tensions between Hezbollah and rebels trying to oust Assad are linked to a regime offensive against the rebel-held town of Qusair in western Syria.

Hezbollah’s involvement in the battle for control of the strategic town has exposed its growing role in the Syrian conflict, prompting rebel threats to target Hezbollah’s bases in Lebanon.

On Saturday, the International Committee of the Red Cross and U.N. humanitarian agencies expressed alarm over the fate of thousands of civilians believed to be trapped there, including many wounded.

They called on both sides to allow aid to reach civilians, including the wounded. The Red Cross said that “many of the wounded are not receiving the medical care they need desperately” and that food, water and medical supplies are scarce. The U.N. agencies called for an immediate cease-fire to allow civilians to leave the town.

On Sunday, U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon called Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem to express concern over the situation in Qusair, according to Syria’s state-run news agency SANA.

However, al-Moallem told the U.N. chief that the Red Cross and other aid agencies will only be able to enter Qusair “after the end of military operations there,” SANA said.

Fighting has already dragged on for three weeks and so far neither side has been able to deliver a decisive blow. Syrian regime troops and Hezbollah fighters launched the offensive against Qusair in mid-May and gained ground, but rebels were able to defend some positions.

Meanwhile, low-flying Israeli warplanes violated Lebanese airspace, overflying the capital Beirut, the eastern Bekaa Valley and the city of Baalbek.

Lebanese President Michel Suleiman said Lebanon would lodge a complaint with the U.N. to protest Israel’s “extensive” violations of Lebanese airspace. Israeli warplanes regularly enter Lebanese airspace.

There was no immediate comment from Israel.

The flights come amid heightened regional tensions because of the civil war in Syria.

Israel is believed to have carried out three airstrikes inside Syria this year said to be aimed at weapons meant for Hezbollah.

Also Sunday, a car bomb killed at least three people in Jobar, a suburb of the Syrian capital of Damascus, said a Syrian government official who insisted on anonymity because he is not allowed to brief reporters.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a pro-opposition group, said the blast targeted a police station and killed nine Syrian soldiers. It said the al-Qaida-linked group Jabhat al-Nusra carried out the attack.

Syria’s state agency SANA blamed the blast on a suicide bomber, saying he blew up his explosive-packed car which was parked in the residential area. The Observatory and SANA said the explosion took place amid heavy fighting. Jobar is a scene of frequent clashes, with rebels trying to push from there toward the capital.

The army has been conducting massive sweeps through opposition strongholds around Damascus, including Jobar.

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.

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