July 19, 2013 / 3:41 PM / 6 years ago

Rocket attack kills custodian of Syrian Shi'ite shrine

BEIRUT (Reuters) - A rocket strike near a Shi’ite Muslim shrine in Damascus killed a custodian of the site on Friday, activists and residents said, in an attack that could inflame sectarian tensions in Syria’s 28-month-old conflict.

Opposition activists and residents said shrapnel killed Anas Romani, the respected caretaker of the gold-domed Sayyeda Zainab shrine in the capital’s southern suburbs, a renowned pilgrimage destination for Shi’ites from Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and beyond.

There were conflicting reports about damage to the shrine. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has a network of activists across Syria, cited sources as saying the shrine’s blue-tiled sanctuary had been hit. But a local resident told Reuters the rockets landed outside the mosque.

The Syrian government accuses rebels of targeting Sayyeda Zainab, which is now protected by hundreds of Shi’ite militants from Iraq and the powerful Lebanese Hezbollah group.

They have been helping Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces battle rebels mostly from the Sunni Muslim majority, whom they accuse of threatening Shi’ite symbols in Syria.

The rebels say they are only attacking pro-Assad forces in the area, though many in their ranks use sectarian rhetoric against Assad’s Shi’ite supporters.

Syria’s uprising-turned-civil war has sectarian dimensions that risk spilling over into neighboring Iraq and Lebanon, which have both suffered their own communal conflicts.

Several Syrian minorities have supported Assad, including his own Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam. They say they fear the rising Sunni Islamist current in the insurgency.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has said protecting Sayyeda Zainab is vital for his group, which now openly acknowledges its involvement on Syria’s battlefields, and has threatened “grave retribution” if any harm befalls the shrine.

The modern mosque houses what Shi’ites believe is the tomb of Zainab, the grand-daughter of the Prophet Mohammad.

Reporting by Erika Solomon; Editing by Alistair Lyon

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