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.
There has been a marked increase in the rocket and mortar attacks along the Syria-Lebanon border in the past two weeks. The rockets, apparently fired by Syrian rebels, have hit mostly Shiite areas in Lebanon, killing at least two people and progressively reaching deeper into Lebanese territory.
Dominated for decades by its larger neighbor, Lebanon has been on edge since the Syrian uprising began in March 2011. The two countries share a complex web of political and sectarian ties and rivalries, and the conflict next door has divided Lebanese along religious lines.
Pro- and anti-Assad groups in Lebanon have engaged in a series of deadly clashes. Many Lebanese Shiites back Syrian President Bashar 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.
Two leading Lebanese Sunni Muslim clerics further stoked tensions late Monday, calling for holy war, or jihad, against Assad.
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."
He said the assessment was based on visual evidence of alleged attacks. Analysts say the best way to verify whether a chemical attack took place is with physical evidence, such as soil samples from the site.
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.
One of the rockets that hit Lebanon Tuesday slammed into a house under construction on the edge of the northeastern town of Hermel near the border with Syria, 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 their respective patriarchates in Aleppo, according to Greek Orthodox Bishop Tony Yazigi.
The bishops were abducted late Monday from the village of Kfar Dael, and the gunmen killed their driver.
It was not immediately clear who kidnapped the men, but Bishop Tony Yazigi said the abductors appeared to be Chechen fighters from the al-Qaida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra group, one of the most powerful of the myriad rebel factions fighting in Syria. Yazigi declined to say what that conclusion was based on.
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."