2 Syrian rockets hit Lebanon as tensions rise

In Syria, two bishops who were kidnapped while traveling outside the city of Aleppo were released Tuesday, less than 24 hours after gunmen pulled them from their car and shot their driver dead.

In this undated combo picture released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Bishop Boulos Yazigi of the Greek Orthodox Church, left, and John Ibrahim of the Assyrian Orthodox Church, right, who were kidnapped Monday, in the northern province of Aleppo, Syria. the fate of two priests who were kidnapped Monday in the northern province of Aleppo is still unknown. It was not immediately clear who abducted Bishop Boulos Yazigi of the Greek Orthodox Church and John Ibrahim of the Assyrian Orthodox Church, said Greek Orthodox Bishop Tony Yazigi. He said the two bishops were abducted from the village of Kfar Deal, and their driver was killed by the gunmen. (AP Photo/SANA)

BEIRUT (AP) — Two Syrian rockets struck Lebanon on Tuesday, causing damage and heightening tensions between Lebanese Shiite and Sunni communities over neighboring Syria's civil war, security officials in Beirut said.

In Syria, two bishops who were kidnapped while traveling outside the city of Aleppo were released Tuesday, less than 24 hours after gunmen pulled them from their car and shot their driver dead.

Rockets apparently fired by Syrian rebels have hit mostly Shiite areas in Lebanon several times in the past two weeks, killing at least two people and progressively reaching deeper into Lebanese territory.

Tuesday's rocket attack came hours after two leading Lebanese Sunni Muslim clerics called for holy war, or jihad, against Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Lebanon and Syria share a complex web of political and sectarian ties and rivalries that are easily inflamed. Lebanon, a country plagued by decades of strife, has been on edge since the uprising against Assad erupted in March 2011.

Pro- and anti-Assad groups in Lebanon have engaged in deadly clashes. Many Lebanese Shiites back Assad, whose regime is dominated by members of his minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Lebanese Sunnis back the rebels, who are mostly from that country's Sunni majority.

The heated rhetoric on both sides of the divide in Lebanon, coupled with escalating violence along the border, has led to a sinking sense among many Lebanese that their country may be sucked into the civil war next door.

Now in its third year, the conflict has settled into a deadly grind, with rebels controlling much of northern Syria while the regime keeps a tight grip on Damascus, the Mediterranean coast and the major cities in the west, except the contested commercial hub of Aleppo.

The fighting has exacted a huge toll on the country, killing more than 70,000 people, laying waste to cities, towns and villages and forcing more than a million people to flee their homes and seek refuge abroad.

In Israel, a senior military intelligence official said that Assad used chemical weapons last month against rebels. It was the first time that Israel has accused the embattled Syrian leader of using his stockpile of nonconventional weapons.

"To the best of our professional understanding, the regime used lethal chemical weapons against the militants in a series of incidents over the past months," Brig. Gen. Itai Brun of Israeli military intelligence told a security conference in Tel Aviv. "Shrunken pupils, foaming at the mouth and other signs indicate, in our view, that lethal chemical weapons were used."

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking in Brussels, urged NATO to prepare for the possible use of chemical weapons by Syria and called for alliance members to boost their assistance to the Syrian opposition. NATO member Turkey borders Syria and would be most at risk from such an attack. NATO has deployed Patriot missile batteries in Turkey.

One of the rockets in Tuesday's attack hit a house under construction on the edge of the northeastern town of Hermel near the Lebanon-Syria border, the officials in Beirut said. The other fell in a field, they added, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief reporters.

The rocket fire coincided with heavy fighting on the Syrian side of the border around the strategic town of Qusair, where troops and pro-government Shiite gunmen backed by Lebanon's militant Hezbollah group have been advancing for days.

Syrian rebels accuse Hezbollah of fighting alongside Assad's troops and attacking rebels from inside Lebanese territory. Though Hezbollah confirms backing the regime's fighters, it denies taking part in the wider civil war.

The Qusair region is strategic because it links the capital Damascus with the Mediterranean coastal enclave that is the heartland of Assad's Alawite sect.

In Lebanon, hard-line Sunni cleric Sheik Ahmad al-Assir, one of Hezbollah's harshest critics, issued a religious edict urging Sunni Lebanese men "to defend Qusair."

Another Sunni cleric, Sheikh Salem al-Rafie issued an edict calling for a "general mobilization among Sunnis to protect Sunni brothers." He said the people of Qusair appealed for "money and men."

Al-Assir and al-Rafie said Hezbollah has violated the Lebanese government's neutral stance toward Syria's civil war by taking part in the fighting.

Over the past several weeks, Hezbollah has held several funerals in Lebanon for its members — gunmen who it said were killed while "performing their jihadi duties." The group did not say where or how the men were killed, but it is widely known they died fighting in Syria.

Lebanese Sunnis have also been killed in Syria, fighting alongside the rebels trying to oust Assad.

Top Hezbollah official Nabil Kaouk said Monday that his group is "performing a national duty" toward Lebanese Shiites living in Syrian border towns and villages.

The two kidnapped priests, Bishop Boulos Yazigi of the Greek Orthodox Church and Bishop John Ibrahim of the Assyrian Orthodox Church, were released Tuesday and arrived safely to Aleppo's Orthodox patriarchate, according to Greek Orthodox Bishop Tony Yazigi.

The two bishops were abducted late Monday from the village of Kfar Dael, and their driver was killed by the gunmen.

It was not immediately clear who kidnapped the men.

The main Syrian opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, condemned the kidnapping and blamed Assad's regime.

However, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on a network of activists on the ground, reported that foreign fighters had abducted the bishops.

Also Tuesday, Syria's Foreign Ministry sharply criticized an EU decision a day earlier to lift its oil embargo on Syrian to allow for crude exports from rebel-held territory and for investment in the oil industry.

In letters sent to the U.N. Security Council and the secretary-general, Syria called the EU decision "illegal" and said it "amounts to an act of aggression," as it constitutes "a complicity in stealing resources that belong to the Syrian people, the only ones with authority over these resources."
Associated Press
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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