Rocket strikes valley near Lebanese capital

Associated Press
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Vehicles are seen on the Beirut-Baalbek highway in Chtoura, Lebanon, Friday, June 21, 2013. Lebanese troops opened the highway a day after it was closed by anti-Assad rebels to protest a siege imposed by Shiite gunmen on the eastern town of Arsal. (AP Photo)

BEIRUT (AP) — A rocket slammed into a valley southeast of the Lebanese capital Friday, causing a blast that reverberated across large parts of Beirut and surrounding mountains in an attack that raised fears that violence related to the civil war in neighboring Syria could be spreading from the border area.

Sectarian tensions have risen sharply in Lebanon since the Shiite militant group Hezbollah openly joined President Bashar Assad's forces in fighting the mainly Sunni rebels seeking his ouster. The country has seen repeated bursts of violence but it has mainly been restricted to border areas and the northern city of Tripoli.

After hours of searching, Lebanese soldiers found the rocket in Jamhour, an 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.

The military said a high voltage electricity cable was damaged in the area where the rocket struck.

Last month, two rockets slammed into Dahyeh, wounding four, hours after the Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah vowed in a speech to help propel Assad to victory.

Hezbollah has drawn anger at home as Lebanon has been divided into supporters and opponents of Assad, largely along sectarian lines. The gap widened when Hezbollah fighters were instrumental in a recent regime victory as they helped government forces regain control of the strategic town of Qusair near the Lebanese border.

Rebels in Syria have vowed to retaliate and have sent rockets slamming into Hezbollah strongholds in northeastern Lebanon.

Lebanon and Syria share a complex web of political and sectarian ties and rivalries that are easily enflamed. Lebanon has been on edge since the uprising against Assad erupted in March 2011. Lebanon's Sunni Muslims mostly back the overwhelmingly Syrian rebels, while many Shiites support Assad, a member of Syria's minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

In addition to the rockets fired from Syria, several areas including the eastern Bekaa Valley have seen rising tensions between rival local groups. On Friday, Lebanese troops opened the Beirut-Baalbek highway a day after it was closed by anti-Assad Lebanese protesters angry over the closure by Shiite gunmen of a road leading to the eastern town of Arsal.

An ambush near Baalbek, also a Hezbollah stronghold, killed four Lebanese Shiite Muslims last Sunday, and some locals blamed Arsal residents.

The violence prompted organizers of Lebanon's world famous Baalbek International Festival to announce plans to move the location of the annual music festival from the ancient city with its Roman ruins because of its proximity to the Syrian border. Earlier this month a barrage of 18 rockets and mortar rounds fired from Syria hit the area, about 15 kilometers (10 miles) from the Syrian border.

"The situation in Baalbek does not permit holding the festival, and we are now looking for a new venue," an official with the festival said Friday, speaking on condition of anonymity because of a lack of authorization to speak to reporters. "Until now the festival has not been canceled.

However, at least one participant, American soprano Renee Fleming, has canceled a planned concert at the festival, which is usually held under the towering columns of the Roman Temple of Jupiter, citing the deteriorating security conditions. The festival is scheduled to begin in August.

Lebanon revived the Baalbek festival in 1997 to publicize its recovery from the 1975-90 civil war, which forced cancellation of the event for 23 years. It has attracted stars like jazz singers Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone.

In downtown Beirut, meanwhile, Lebanese protesters continued a sit-in for a second day near the parliament building to demand elections that originally were scheduled in June. Last month, the 128-member parliament extended its term by a year and a half, skipping scheduled elections because of the deteriorating security conditions in the country.

The demonstrators, who clashed with police Thursday, say the extension was unconstitutional and have set up tents, blocking a side road in the city center.