UNITED NATIONS The United Nations expressed renewed concern on Tuesday that Lebanon could be drawn into Syria's worsening two-year-old civil war, which the world body said had developed sectarian overtones and been aggravated by foreign fighters and extremist groups.
U.N. political affairs chief Jeffrey Feltman painted what he called an "appalling picture" of the conflict that began as peaceful protests against President Bashar al-Assad and turned violent when government forces tried to crush the demonstrations. The United Nations says almost 70,000 have been killed in the war.
"The destructive military spiral churns more forcefully each day and threatens to pull its neighbors, most notably and worrisomely Lebanon, into its vortex," Feltman told the U.N. Security Council during a Middle East briefing.
"The war has also taken on sectarian overtones, permeated by opportunistic criminality, and aggravated by the presence of foreign fighters and extremist groups as well as by some actions of the government, including its affiliated shabbiha" militia, he said.
With the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, dominating power in Syria, the conflict has deepened the Shi'ite-Sunni divide in the Middle East. Lebanon, where Shi'ite Hezbollah backs Assad, is deeply divided over the Syrian revolt.
Feltman said the situation in Syria was a source of "extreme concern" for the United Nations.
"Even tentative steps to dialogue are struggling to take root," he said of recent offers by both sides of talks. "Regrettably, the warring parties remain locked in military logic which is bound to bring more death and destruction."
"Both sides have committed abuses amounting to war crimes - although the scale of abuses committed by the government side significantly exceeds those of the opposition," Feltman said. "Hospitals, bakeries and bread lines have been targeted. Whole neighborhoods have been razed."
Syria's government and the political opposition have both suggested in recent weeks they are prepared for some contacts - softening their previous outright rejection of talks to resolve a conflict that has driven nearly a million Syrians out of the country and left millions more homeless and hungry.
(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)