Lebanon on end edge as Syrian strife spills into Beirut

Lebanese policemen inspect the wreckage of a burnt car after overnight clashes between Sunni Muslim Future movement supporters and a pro-Syrian group in the Tariq al-Jadideh district in Beirut. (Photo: Reuters)

May 21, 2012, Monday/ 14:09:00

Street battles between pro- and anti-Syrian groups in the Lebanese capital killed two people overnight and wounded 15 as the spiraling conflict in neighboring Syria spilled across the border.

Some Beirut residents kept their children home from school following the fighting, which was among the worst the Lebanese capital has seen in four years. Gunmen fired rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns in battles that lasted more than four hours. The recent fighting was among the most intense fighting in Beirut since May 2008

Some Beirut residents kept their children home from school following the fighting, which was among the worst the Lebanese capital has seen in four years. Gunmen fired rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns in battles that lasted more than four hours.

The streets were calmer Monday, but some shops remained closed.

The violence in the predominantly Sunni neighborhood of Tariq Jadidah erupted hours after an anti-Syrian cleric and his bodyguard were shot dead at a checkpoint in northern Lebanon, an incident that instantly spiked tensions.

Authorities braced for the possibility of more violence Monday in the north, where Sunni cleric Sheik Ahmed Abdul-Wahid and his bodyguard were to be buried. Gunmen carrying automatic rifles shouted for the downfall of the Syrian regime in the cleric's hometown of Beireh, where he was to be buried later in the day.

Gulf states sound warning

Amid fears the situation might deteriorate, four Gulf countries -- Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and United Arab Emirates -- have warned their citizens against travel to Lebanon.

The fighting underscores how the bloodshed in Syria, where President Bashar Assad's regime is cracking down on an uprising against his rule, can fuel violence across the border in Lebanon.

Lebanon has a fragile political faultline precisely over the issue of Syria.

There is an array of die-hard pro-Syrian Lebanese parties and politicians, as well as support for the regime on the street level. There is an equally deep hatred of Assad among other Lebanese who fear Damascus is still calling the shots here. The two sides are the legacy of Syria's virtual rule over Lebanon from 1976 to 2005 and its continued influence since.

On Monday, a gunman in Beireh shouted “Down with Bashar!” and said the Syrian leader was trying to “transfer the crisis to Lebanon.”

Lebanon and Syria share a complex web of political and sectarian ties and rivalries, which can easily turn violent. Last week, clashes sparked by the Syrian crisis killed at least eight people and wounded dozens in the northern city of Tripoli.

The revolt in Syria began 15 months ago, and there are fears the unrest will lead to a regional conflagration that could draw in neighboring countries. The UN estimates the conflict has killed more than 9,000 people since March 2011.

Syrian activists said regime forces killed dozens of people during a raid Sunday on the central town of Soran in Hama province, security officials said.

One activist group, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, put the death toll at 39, citing a network of sources on the ground. Syria-based activist Mustafa Osso said the figure was more than 20.

The death toll could not be independently confirmed.

A video posted online by activists showed the bodies of five people said to be of the same family who were killed during the shelling of Soran.

Syria is a geographical linchpin in the Middle East, raising the possibility that the crisis there will bleed into other countries.

The circumstances surrounding Sunday's shooting death of the Abdul-Wahid, the Sunni cleric, and his bodyguard remained unclear but the state-run National News Agency said they appeared to have been killed by soldiers after their convoy failed to stop at an army checkpoint.

Lebanese army to investigate

The Lebanese army on Sunday issued a statement, saying it deeply regretted the incident and that a committee will investigate.

The clashes in Beirut subsided around 4 a.m. on Monday after anti-Syrian gunmen took control of the headquarters of the pro-Syrian Arab Movement Party.

The fighting was among the most intense fighting in Beirut since May 2008, when gunmen from the Shiite Hezbollah militant group swept through Sunni neighborhoods after the pro-Western government tried to dismantle the group's telecommunications network.

More than 80 people were killed in the 2008 violence, pushing the country to the brink of civil war.

Also Monday, Syria's state-run news agency SANA, said Assad issued a presidential decree calling on the country's newly elected parliament to hold its first meeting on Thursday. A parliament speaker is usually elected on the first meeting of a new parliament.

Assad has pointed to the parliamentary elections earlier this month as a sign of his long-promised reforms, but the opposition dismissed the vote as a sham meant to preserve his autocratic rule.

As the violence intensified, there are growing fears that al-Qaeda or other extremists could be entering the fray. In a statement posted on a militant web site late on Sunday, a group calling itself the Al-Nusra Front claimed responsibility for a suicide car bomb attack in the parking lot of a Syrian military compound in the eastern city of Deir el-Zour.

Saturday's attack, the latest in increasingly frequent bombings in the country's major cities to target the regime's security services, killed at least nine people and wounded dozens.

Little is known about the group although Western intelligence officials say it could be a front for a branch of al-Qaeda militants from Iraq operating in Syria. The group claimed responsibility for several other suicide attacks in Syria.

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