Rocket fire kills at least 3 in Lebanon in worrisome sign of Syria conflict’s spread

McClatchy Foreign StaffJanuary 17, 2014 

Mideast Lebanon

Lebanese army soldiers and policemen gather at the site of a car bomb explosion at a stronghold of Lebanon's Hezbollah group, in the center of the predominantly Shiite town of Hermel.

UNCREDITED — ASSOCIATED PRESS

— Rockets rained down Friday on villages throughout Lebanon’s eastern Bekaa Valley, with both Sunni and Shiite villages targeted in one of the worst outbreaks of sectarian violence in months as the division between the two communities over the civil war in Syria deepens.

Residents of Arsal, a predominately Sunni border town that staunchly supports the Syrian rebellion, reported that rockets fired from a nearby Shiite Muslim enclave controlled by Hezbollah had struck the center of the city, killing at least eight people and wounding 20. The Lebanese National News Agency quoted anonymous officials saying that the rockets had been fired from neighboring Syria, but residents of Arsal were adamant that the munitions had originated with Hezbollah, which also operates inside Syria in defense of its ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The rocket fire came one day after the Nusra Front, a Syrian rebel group with ties to al Qaida, claimed a suicide car bombing that killed three people in Hermel, a Shiite-controlled town. Friday, rockets struck several nearby Shiite villages causing material damage but no casualties.

Hezbollah has justified its military support for Assad by citing the frequent shelling of Shiite villages on both sides of the border, saying it needs to protect Shiites from Sunni rebels tied to al Qaida.

“Well, now we have a civil war,” remarked Abu Rami, a former Christian militiaman in Beirut as he heard the news on the radio. “This reminds me of 1975.”

The 1975-1990 Lebanese civil war saw Lebanon’s religious communities establish militias and operate heavy weapons outside the control of the feeble central government. The current crisis, which has pitted Hezbollah and its mostly Shiite supporters against Lebanon’s increasingly alienated Sunni community, has long been expected to deteriorate as armed Sunni groups from Syria increase their operations inside Lebanon.

“It’s not quite a civil war because the Sunnis haven’t properly organized yet, but that’s changing with influence from Syria,” said a Western military attache in Beirut, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he’s not authorized to speak with reporters. “Call it a steady decline in government authority and an increasingly violent series of civil disturbances.”

According to a rebel activist, Abu Omar al Hujieri, one of the rockets appeared to target the home of Ahmad al Hujieri, a well known rebel activist and a cousin of Abu Omar. The Hujieri family is one of the largest and most powerful Sunni families in Arsal and openly supports the rebels in Syria.

Abu Omar said Ahmad al Hujieri’s family was home. “At least three of his daughters were killed,” he said.

Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent.

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