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May 26, 2013 7:14 pm
Rockets struck a neighbourhood near Hizbollah’s southern Beirut stronghold on Sunday, deepening fears Syria’s war could spill over into Lebanon even as international powers push for a peace conference aimed at bringing together the Damascus regime and rebels.
The salvo landed in the mostly Shia Muslim area of Chiyah, in a fresh sign that Hizbollah’s growing involvement in the Syrian civil war risks a sectarian backlash in Lebanon.
The Shia militant group’s forces are fighting alongside President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in a ferocious battle against Syria’s Sunni-dominated rebel movement for the strategically important town of Qusair, not far from the Lebanese border.
The rockets were launched as the Assad regime’s foreign minister paid a surprise visit to Baghdad and announced he would “in principle” attend a UN-backed meeting in Geneva next month aimed at starting a peace process for Syria more than two years into the uprising-turned-civil war.
While Iraq’s Shia-led government has a natural affinity with Mr Assad – and has been accused by US officials of allowing overflights by aircraft supplying Iranian weapons to the Syrian regime – it has attempted to remain neutral in public. But Baghdad launched a military operation over the weekend that it says is aimed at targeting al-Qaeda affiliated groups in western Iraq, members of which have been fighting as part of the Syrian rebel movement. The offensive also follows a surge in sectarian violence in Iraq.
Residents of Chiyah said that one rocket hit a car dealership at around 7am, shattering the windows of several vehicles on display and injuring four Syrian labourers who were sleeping there.
Another struck a family home a few hundred metres up the road, covering the reception area in debris. A resident who had been asleep in the next room with his pregnant wife said the area had been targeted “because we love Hassan Nasrallah”, a reference to Hizbollah’s leader.
Late last night there were also reports that a rocket had been fired from south Lebanon towards Israel. Reuters said it was not clear where the rocket landed and there were no immediate reports of damage inside Israel.
In a speech at the weekend, Mr Nasrallah said his group was committed to fighting rebels in Syria, whom he depicted as extremists.
“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, after the battle for Qusair caused his group’s biggest casualties yet in Syria. “We will be the ones who bring . . . victory, God willing.”
He said Sunni extremists fighting on the rebel side in the border areas threatened not just local Shia but “all the Lebanese people”. If Syria fell into the hands of Sunni extremists, “Israel will enter Lebanon and impose its will”, he added.
The growing conflict around Hizbollah came as the Syrian regime and its international allies and opponents skirmished diplomatically ahead of the Geneva conference. The UN Security Council has been paralysed since the start of a conflict that is estimated to have killed more than 70,000, with Russia and China rebuffing western- and Gulf-led attempts to force Mr Assad from office.
The UK is leading efforts before the conference to loosen an EU arms embargo on Syria, to put diplomatic pressure on Mr Assad and remind him that the opposition has powerful friends.
Walid al-Moallem, Syria’s foreign minister, said in Baghdad that the Geneva dialogue was a “good opportunity for a political solution for the crisis”, although he gave no details about how the regime would be represented or what it would seek.
Ali al-Moussawi, a spokesman for Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s prime minister, said the premier had told the Syrian foreign minister that the only way of ending the Syrian crisis was through talks, a democratic process and meeting the “demands of the Syrian people”.
Additional reporting by Elizabeth Rigby in London
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