Blast hits Hezbollah convoy near Syrian border

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Associated Press

Posted on July 16, 2013 at 1:03 PM

Updated Tuesday, Jul 16 at 2:31 PM

BEIRUT (AP) — A roadside bomb struck an SUV carrying Hezbollah members near Lebanon's border with Syria on Tuesday, wounding at least two people in the second attack targeting the Lebanese Shiite Muslim group in a week.

A police official said the vehicle appeared to have been part of a two-car Hezbollah convoy heading to Syria and that the two casualties were transported in ambulances affiliated with the group to a hospital in Beirut. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief journalists, said it was not immediately clear whether the bombing was an assassination attempt.

It is the latest fallout for Lebanon from the civil war in Syria, where an estimated 5,000 people are being killed every month, according to the United Nations.

Lebanon, long troubled by Syria's civil war and its potential to overwhelm its smaller neighbor, has been on edge since a powerful car bomb last Tuesday in a Hezbollah stronghold in Beirut's southern suburbs wounded 53 people. To many in Lebanon, that blast confirmed fears that the Iranian-backed group, a staunch ally of President Bashar Assad's government, would face retaliation for its now overt role fighting alongside Assad's troops inside Syria.

As Hezbollah's hand in the Syrian conflict has become public, Lebanon has seen a spike in Sunni-Shiite tensions that has sparked gun battles in several cities around the country. Many Lebanese Sunnis support the overwhelmingly Sunni uprising against Assad in Syria, while Shiites generally back Hezbollah and the regime.

Tuesday's roadside blast struck the SUV as it was driving on the main road in Majdal Anjar leading from Lebanon to the Syrian capital, about 1.5 kilometers (1 mile) from the Masnaa border crossing. The road is frequently used by Hezbollah security officials and other Lebanese officials heading to the Syrian capital, Damascus.

The state-run National News Agency identified the wounded men as Hussein Ali Bdeir and Fadi Abdul Karim. Local media reports said the two may have been bodyguards for a Hezbollah official traveling in the convoy.

Lebanese security officials said the car appeared to have been ambushed and the bomb detonated remotely. They spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations. Television footage showed the damage vehicle, which appeared to have several bullet holes and blood spattered on its front seat.

A Hezbollah official said the group had no information on the blast.

The group's fighters played a key role in a recent victory by Assad's forces to retake control of the strategic Syrian town of Qusair, near the Lebanese border, where rebels held sway for more than a year. Syrian activists say Hezbollah fighters are now aiding a regime offensive in the besieged city of Homs.

Attacks that target Hezbollah, such as last week's car bombing in the heart of the group's bastion of support, considerably raise the stakes in Lebanon and suggest that Syria's civil war is beginning to consume Lebanon.

U.N. officials said Tuesday that approximately 5,000 people a month are being killed in Syria and the flight of refugees is the worst since the 1994 Rwanda genocide.

U.N. refugee chief Antonio Guterres said two-thirds of the nearly 1.8 million Syrian refugees known to the agency have fled since the beginning of 2013, an average of more than 6,000 daily.

"We have not seen a refugee outflow escalate at such a frightening rate since the Rwandan genocide almost 20 years ago," Guterres said.

U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos accused the government and the opposition of "systematically, and in many cases, deliberately" failing their obligation to protect civilians. More than 93,000 people have been killed and millions uprooted from their homes in the conflict, according to the U.N.

Inside Syria, pro-government gunmen killed seven members of a local Syrian reconciliation group near the central city of Homs, as troops shot dead nine people including a child at a checkpoint in a suburb of the capital, activists said Tuesday.

The killings coincide with an offensive by Assad's troops in Damascus and its surrounding suburbs, as well as in the strategic province surrounding Homs.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the seven men, including two retired army officers, were Sunnis working to convince gunmen to abandon their weapons and return to normal life. They were killed Monday in the village of Hajar Abyad, where residents are known to be regime supporters, it said.

The main Western-backed Syrian opposition group, the Syrian National Council, accused Assad's regime on Tuesday of "luring people" to the frontlines under the pretext of negotiating a ceasefire or evacuating civilians, and then killing the mediators. The group cited the village killings as an example.

Assad's troops have captured several nearby rebel-held areas in recent weeks, including the towns of Qusair and Talkalkh near the border with Lebanon. Late last month, they launched an attack to try to capture rebel-held areas of Homs, Syria's third largest city.

They have also made headway against brigades on the edge of Damascus and its eastern suburbs.

The uprising against Assad's rule began in March 2011 and has deteriorated into an insurgency with growing sectarian overtones. The rebels have been assisted by foreign fighters, while government forces have been bolstered by Hezbollah guerrillas and Shiite fighters from Iraq.

In the Damascus suburb of Qarah, troops shot dead nine people including a child at an army checkpoint in the area, the Observatory said.

It was not clear whether those killed were fighters or civilians. An amateur video showed seven dead men, some of them with beards, and a boy with a bloodied face. The dead appeared to have suffered bullet wounds, some to the head.

"These are Bashar's crimes during Ramadan," a man could be heard saying in the video, referring to the Muslim holy month that began last week.

The video appeared genuine and corresponded to other Associated Press reporting of the events depicted.

___

Associated Press writer Edith M. Lederer contributed to this report from the United Nations.

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