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Rocket near Beirut brings Syrian war closer

Saturday - 6/22/2013, 4:52am  ET

A civil society protester chant slogans against Lebanese lawmakers during a demonstration protesting the extension of parliament’s mandate, near Parliament in Beirut, Lebanon, Friday, June 21, 2013. Lebanon’s parliament on May 29 extended its term by a year and a half, skipping scheduled elections because of the country’s deteriorating security linked to the civil war next door in Syria. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

Associated Press

BEIRUT (AP) -- A rocket slammed into a suburb of Beirut on Friday, bringing the conflict in neighboring Syria closer to Lebanon's bustling capital and reviving bitter memories of the country's own devastating civil war.

With skirmishes between Shiites and Sunnis on the rise around the country, religiously mixed and highly vulnerable Lebanon is increasingly buffeted by powerful forces that are dividing the Arab world along sectarian lines.

There were no casualties from the rocket, which struck a Christian area southeast of Beirut overnight, but the incident raised fears that Lebanon was being sucked into a war that has already paralyzed state institutions and strained its economy with the presence of more than a half-million Syrian refugees.

"This is very, very dangerous," said Pierre Ashkar, head of a syndicate of hotel owners, referring to the potential damage to the tourism industry from such rocket attacks. He said his daughter and her husband were among scores who have canceled plans to come Lebanon.

"When our kids can't come to Lebanon, I don't know how a French, British or even a Saudi and Kuwaiti can," he told The Associated Press.

For the most part, Lebanon has stayed on the sidelines of the Arab Spring, keeping up its appearance as an oasis of relative stability, which has helped its tourism and entertainment businesses.

The Lebanese -- and the tens of thousands of expatriates and Gulf Arab tourists who visit every summer -- have learned to live with the country's occasional bouts of upheaval and violence, including huge street protests that followed the assassination of a former prime minister in 2005 and deadly street clashes in 2008, when the militant Shiite Hezbollah group briefly overran parts of Beirut.

Beneath the surface lurk the same forces that devastated the country in its years of civil war, with simmering hatreds still dividing Muslims and Christians, Sunnis and Shiites, and secular and fundamentalist groups.

The Lebanese civil war began in 1975 with clashes between mostly Muslim Palestinian factions and Christian militiamen, and eventually turned into a Christian-Muslim civil war in which external players like Saudi Arabia, Syria and Western countries used the country as a battleground.

The uprising in Syria against President Bashar Assad, which began in March 2011, brought sectarian tensions to the surface and has inflamed rivalries.

The two countries share a complex web of political and sectarian ties, and Lebanon is deeply divided into pro- and anti-Assad groups, a legacy of Syria's long dominance of its small neighbor.

Lebanon's Sunni Muslims mostly back the overwhelmingly Sunni rebels in Syria, while many Shiites support Assad, who is a member of Syria's minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

Sectarian tensions sharply increased after the Shiite militant group Hezbollah openly joined Assad's forces in fighting the rebels seeking his ouster. Lebanon has seen repeated bursts of violence, but it has mostly been restricted to border areas and the northern city of Tripoli.

Rockets from Syria fall regularly into towns and villages near the border. Last week, the tensions exploded into street clashes in the southern city of Sidon, suggesting the scope of the fighting was widening.

Friday's rocket slammed into a valley southeast of Beirut, causing a blast that reverberated across large parts of the city and surrounding mountains.

After hours of searching, Lebanese soldiers found the rocket in Jamhour, a Christian area near the presidential palace, the Defense Ministry and the Hezbollah stronghold of Dahyeh, the military said in a statement. Two rocket launchers still holding one rocket also were found about 10 miles (15 kilometers) to the north of the city, also in a Christian town.

It was the second such attack in less than a month. Two rockets hit Dahyeh on May 26, wounding four, hours after the Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah vowed in a speech to help propel Assad to victory.

The gap widened when Hezbollah fighters were instrumental in a recent Syrian government victory as they helped pro-Assad forces regain control of the strategic town of Qusair near the Lebanese border.

No one claimed responsibility the rocket attacks near Beirut, but rebels in Syria have vowed to retaliate and have sent rockets slamming into Hezbollah strongholds in northeastern Lebanon.

Friday's attack may also have been an attempt to drag Christian areas into the conflict, or perhaps was intended to send a message to Lebanese President Michel Suleiman, a Christian.

Rebel groups have warned Suleiman to rein in Hezbollah. Under pressure, the president has been increasingly critical of Hezbollah involvement in Syria; on Thursday, he said the group was making a "mistake" and urged it to leave Syria.

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