By Dominic Evans, BEIRUT (Reuters): Two rockets hit a Shi’ite Muslim district of southern Beirut on Sunday and wounded several people, residents said, a day after the leader of Lebanese Shi’ite militant movement Hezbollah said his group would continue fighting in Syria until victory.
It was the first attack to apparently target Hezbollah’s stronghold in the south of the Lebanese capital since the outbreak of the two-year conflict in neighboring Syria, which has sharply heightened Lebanon’s own sectarian tensions.
One rocket landed in a car sales yard next to a busy road junction in the Chiah neighborhood and the other hit an apartment several hundred meters away, wounding five people, residents said.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility. Brigadier Selim Idris, head of Syria’s Western-backed rebel military command, told Al-Arabiya Television that his forces had not carried out the attack and urged rebels to keep their conflict inside Syria.
But another Syrian rebel, Ammar al-Wawi, told Lebanon’s LBC Television the attack was a warning to authorities in Beirut to restrain Hezbollah. “In coming days we will do more than this. This is a warning to Hezbollah, and the Lebanese government to keep Hezbollah’s hands off Syria,” he said.
A Lebanese security source said three rocket launchers were found, one of which had misfired or failed to launch, in hills to the southeast of the Lebanese capital, about 5 miles from the area where the two rockets landed.
The rocket strikes came hours after Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, a powerful supporter of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, said his fighters were committed to the conflict whatever the cost.
“We will continue to the end of the road. We accept this responsibility and will accept all sacrifices and expected consequences of this position,” he said in a televised speech on Saturday evening. “We will be the ones who bring victory”.
Syria’s two-year uprising has polarized Lebanon, with Sunni Muslims supporting the rebellion against Assad and Shi’ite Hezbollah and its allies standing by Assad. The Lebanese city of Tripoli has seen frequent explosions of violence between majority Sunnis and its small Alawite community.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius condemned the violence in Lebanon. “The war in Syria must not become the war in Lebanon,” he told reporters in Abu Dhabi on Sunday.
Kuwait, which like several Gulf states warned its nationals last year against visiting Lebanon, urged any citizens in Lebanon to leave and reiterated its advice not travel there.
Until recently, Nasrallah insisted that Hezbollah had not sent guerrillas to fight alongside Assad’s forces, but in his speech on Saturday he said it was fighting in Syria to defend Lebanon from radical Islamists now leading Syria’s rebellion.
Hezbollah forces and Assad’s troops launched a fierce assault last week aimed at driving Syrian rebels out of Qusair, a strategic town close to the Lebanese border which rebels have used as a supply route for weapons coming into the country.
Lebanese authorities, haunted by Lebanon’s own 1975-1990 civil war and torn by the same sectarian rifts as its powerful neighbor, have sought to pursue a police of “dissociation” from the Syrian turmoil.
But they are unable to prevent the flow into Syria of Sunni Muslim gunmen who support the rebels and Hezbollah fighters who support Assad, and have struggled to absorb nearly half a million refugees coming the other way to escape the fighting.
At least 25 people have been killed in Tripoli in the north of Lebanon over the last week in street fighting which has been partly triggered by the battle for Qusair across the border.
Nasrallah’s speech was condemned by Sunni Muslim former Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, who said that Hezbollah, set up by Iran in the 1980s to fight Israeli occupation forces in south Lebanon, had abandoned anti-Israeli “resistance” in favor of sectarian conflict in Syria.
“The resistance is ending by your hand and your will,” Hariri said in a statement. “The resistance announced its political and military suicide in Qusair”.
Hariri is backed by Saudi Arabia, which along with other Sunni Muslim Gulf Arab monarchies has strongly supported the uprising against Iranian-backed Assad, whose minority Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam.
In Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, residents said three rockets landed on Sunday close to the mainly Shi’ite border town of Hermel, without causing injuries. Rebels have targeted Hermel from inside Syria several times in recent weeks.
(Additional reporting by Laila Bassam and Erika Solomon in Beirut, John Irish in Abu Dhabi and Sylvia Westall in Kuwait; editing by Tom Pfeiffer)
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