Syrian rockets hit Lebanon as tensions ramp up

Latest volley slams into construction site hours after leading Lebanese Sunni clerics call for jihad in Syria

BEIRUT (AP) — Two Syrian rockets struck Lebanon on Tuesday, causing material damage and heightening tensions between Lebanese Shiite and Sunni communities over neighboring Syria’s civil war, security officials in Beirut said.

Syrian rockets have hit the predominantly Shiite areas in Lebanon on several occasions in the past two weeks, in one instance killing at least two people.

The shelling came just hours after two leading Lebanese Sunni Muslim clerics rallied followers late Monday for holy war, or jihad, in Syria. The calls appealed on fighters to go to protect Sunnis in villages under attack by Syrian regime troops and pro-government Shiite gunmen.

Lebanon and Syria share a complex web of political and sectarian ties and rivalries that are easily enflamed. Lebanon, a country plagued by decades of strife, has been on edge since the uprising in Syria against President Bashar Assad erupted in March 2011.

Pro and anti-Assad groups in Lebanon have engaged in several deadly clashes. Many Lebanese Shiites back Assad, whose regime is dominated by members his minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Lebanese Sunnis, on the other hand, back the rebels in Syria who are mostly from that country’s Sunni majority.

The officials in Beirut said one of the rockets Tuesday hit a house under construction on the edge of the northeastern town of Hermel near the Lebanon-Syria border. The other fell in a field, they said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

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Meanwhile, heavy fighting was ongoing on the Syrian side of the border Tuesday around the strategic town of Qusair where troops and pro-government Shiite gunmen backed by Lebanon’s militant Hezbollah group have been advancing for days.

A government official in the provincial capital of Homs said troops were making progress, adding that Qusair “will be safe soon.” He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the military’s progress.

The Qusair region around the Orontes River is strategic because it links the capital Damascus with the Mediterranean coastal enclave that is the heartland of Assad’s Alawite sect.

In Lebanon, hard-line Sunni cleric Sheik Ahmad al-Assir, one of the militant group Hezbollah’s harshest critics, issued a religious edict, a fatwa, urging Sunni Lebanese men “to defend Qusair.”

Another Sunni cleric, Sheikh Salem al-Rafie who is based in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, issued another fatwa later Monday, calling for a “general mobilization among Sunnis to protect Sunni brothers.” He said the people of Qusair had told them they need “money and men.”

Al-Assir, based in the southern port city of Sidon, and al-Rafie said Hezbollah has violated the Lebanese government’s neutral stance toward Syria’s civil war by taking part in the fighting.

Over the past several weeks, Hezbollah, which denies taking part in Syria’s conflict, held several funerals in Lebanon for its members — gunmen who it said were killed while “performing their jihadi duties.” The group did not say where or how the men were killed, but it is widely known they died fighting in Syria.

Lebanese Sunni fighters have also been killed in Syria while going to fight with the rebels trying to remove Assad from power.

Top Hezbollah official, Nabil Kaouk, said Monday that the group is “performing a national duty” toward Lebanese Shiites living in Syrian border towns and villages.

Syria’s conflict started with largely peaceful protests against Assad’s regime in March 2011 but eventually turned into a civil war. More than 70,000 people have been killed in the war, according to the United Nations.

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.

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