Lebanon sends army to Syria border as rebels flee
LABWEH, Lebanon (AP) -- The Lebanese army sent commandos to the tense border area with Syria on Monday, bracing for another spillover of the conflict next door as Syrian rebels continued to flee into Lebanon after the fall of their stronghold to President Bashar Assad's forces.
Lebanon has been on edge since Yabroud fell on Sunday and Syrian rebels started pouring into the Lebanese Sunni-dominated town of Arsal, which is surrounded by Shiite villages guarded by Hezbollah militants.
With opposition fighters crossing into Lebanon, where Hezbollah is a major force, Syria's smaller neighbor is likely to be dragged even more into the conflict. The civil war already has ignited polarizing sectarian tensions between Lebanon's Sunnis and Shiites.
On Monday, several rockets struck the predominantly Shiite town of Labweh near Arsal, causing some damage but no casualties. Still, angry Labweh residents said the rockets were fired from Arsal and closed off the road between the two towns with sand barriers, guarded by about 20 armed Hezbollah fighters.
Earlier in the day, Lebanese troops and commandos in beige, desert-style army uniforms, patrolled the rugged, hilly border area on foot. On one patrol, near the northeastern village of Fakiha, they came across an abandoned vehicle, rigged with explosives and blew it up, turning the SUV into a fireball and leaving a four-meter (yard) crater on the ground.
"We took the decision to blow is up immediately, without searching it," an officer told The Associated Press at the scene, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with military regulations.
The fall of Yabroud, a smuggling hub for the rebels trying to overthrow Assad - was a major gain for Syrian government troops and their Hezbollah allies. It was also the Syrian opposition fighters' last stronghold in the vital border area. Assad's forces have now consolidated authority in Syria's major cities, including the capital, Damascus.
Yabroud's fall came after months of fighting in the mountainous Qalamoun region between Assad's forces and Hezbollah fighters on one side and the rebels, mostly Islamist militant groups, on the other.
The Hezbollah fighters have been instrumental to Assad's success on the battlefield, and support from the Iranian-backed group appears to have tipped the balance into the government's favor in Yabroud.
In Lebanon, Sunni militants have in the past weeks carried out several suicide bombings and car bomb attacks in Shiite dominated towns and suburbs of Beirut that are Hezbollah strongholds, claiming they were revenge for the group's role in the Syrian war.
On Monday, a Lebanese militant Sunni group claimed responsibility for a car bombing the previous night in Nabi Othman, a predominantly Shiite town in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley that also has a significant Christian community.
The Nusra Front in Lebanon said in a statement posted on its Twitter account that the attack, in which two people were killed and 14 were wounded, was in revenge for Hezbollah's support for Assad and "a quick response" for the fall of Yabroud into Syrian government hands.
In footage broadcast live on state television in Damascus, Syrian army officers raised the national flag in Yabroud's main square on Monday and covered rebel flag with banners praising Assad's troops.
Syria's 3-year-old conflict has devastated the country, killing more than 140,000 people and forcing millions from their homes.
The crisis started as largely peaceful protests against Assad's rule in March 2011. It turned into a civil war after opposition supporters took up arms to fight a brutal government crackdown on dissent. Over the past year, the conflict has taken increasing sectarian overtones, pitting predominantly Sunni Muslim rebels against Assad's government that is dominated by Alawites, a sect in Shiite Islam.
From the start, the rebels have been outgunned by the Syrian army, which has relied heavily on its air force to regain territory it lost to the opposition. However, the rebels' resolve to overthrow Assad was significantly weakened after rival rebel groups, often backed by local tribal militias, turned on each other in battles over areas they had previously captured together from government forces.
More than 3,000 rebels have been killed in the infighting, and a spokesman for the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front in Syria's Qalamoun region blamed the fall of Yabroud on rebel-on-rebel clashes and rivalries.
"Yabroud did not fall. Yabroud was handed over to the (Syrian) regime and Hezbollah," said the spokesman, Abdullah Azzam al-Shami in comments posted on a militant website Monday.
He said Nusra fighters in Yabroud were determined to hold the town but had to withdraw after rebels from other groups abandoned their positions in the surrounding hills, opening the way for Assad's troops to push in from the east.
Surk reported from Beirut. Associated Press writer Maamoun Youssef in Cairo and Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report.