BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syria’s conflict spilled further into Lebanon on Saturday when mortar fire from President Bashar al-Assad’s forces hit villages in the north, killing five people after rebels crossed the border to seek refuge, residents said.
Rebels fighting to unseat Assad have used north Lebanon as a base and his forces have at times bombed villages and even pursued insurgents over the border, threatening to stoke tension in Lebanon, whose sectarian rifts mirror those in Syria.
Residents of Lebanon’s Wadi Khaled region said several mortar bombs hit farm buildings five to 20 km (3 to 12 miles) from the border at around 2 a.m. At midday villagers reported more explosions and said they heard gunfire close to the border.
In the village of al-Mahatta, a house was destroyed, killing a 16-year-old girl and wounding a two-year old and a four-year old, family members told Reuters. A 25-year-old woman and a man were killed in nearby villages, residents said.
Two Bedouins were killed in the village of Hishe, which straddles a river demarcating the border, when two rocket-propelled grenades fired from within Syria hit their tent, according to local residents.
Lebanon’s army confirmed one of the deaths and said several Syrian shells had landed in Lebanese territory, but had no further information. Lebanese President Michel Suleiman issued a statement regretting the deaths and promising an investigation.
Syria’s bloodshed has also encroached on Turkey, a much bigger, more powerful neighbor that once backed Assad but turned against him over his violent repression of unrest.
Turkey has reinforced its border and scrambled fighter aircraft several times since Syria shot down a Turkish reconnaissance jet on June 22 over what Damascus said was Syrian territorial waters in the Mediterranean. Ankara said the incident occurred in international air space.
The diplomatic stalemate that has frustrated international efforts to bring about a peaceful transition in Syria persisted on Saturday as China joined Russia in rejecting a U.S. accusation that Beijing and Moscow were obstacles to a solution.
In Syria, the army bombarded towns across northern Aleppo province on Saturday in a concerted effort to root out insurgents who have taken control of some areas, the anti-government Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
“The bombing is the heaviest since the start of military operations in rural Aleppo in an attempt to control the region after regular Syrian army forces suffered heavy losses over the past few months,” the British-based activist group reported.
It said three people had died, including two rebels.
The official Syrian news agency SANA said troops foiled infiltration attempts by armed men from Turkey and Lebanon on Friday. It said one clash “resulted in the killing, injury of dozens of the infiltrated gunmen”.
In Idlib province, SANA said, an armed terrorist group was prevented from infiltrating from Turkey in Harem region. It quoted a source as saying a number were killed “while the rest managed to flee back into the Turkish territories”.
The Observatory said many families had been displaced and water, electricity and medical supplies were running short.
Aleppo, Syria’s second largest city and commercial hub, has been largely spared of the violence. But the outskirts of the city and the wider province have seen rebels gaining territory since the uprising began 16 months ago.
SANA reported a clash “with an armed terrorist group in Azaz area north of Aleppo as it was attacking the citizens and perpetrating killings”. It said eight gunmen were killed and six cars equipped with machineguns plus a stolen ambulance were destroyed. The agency named the dead.
Opposition activists say at least 15,000 people have been killed since the uprising began. Assad says the rebels are foreign-backed terrorists who have killed thousands of army and police troops in hit-and-run attacks and roadside bombings.
The Observatory said 93 people, mostly civilians, were killed across Syria on Friday, when protesters took the streets to call for a “people’s liberation war.”
Syria’s crisis began with street protests against Assad and evolved largely into an armed insurgency after he tried to crush unrest by military force. It has become increasingly sectarian in nature with rebels from Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority pitted against Assad’s minority Alawites, a branch of Shi‘ite Islam, dominating the military and security services.
CHINA BRISTLES AT CLINTON‘S ACCUSATION
Russia and China have repeatedly used veto power at the U.N. Security Council to block international attempts to push Assad to relinquish power to make way for a democratic transition in the pivotal Arab country.
At a “Friends of Syria” meeting grouping Assad’s Western and Arab opponents, Clinton urged them to make Russia and China “pay a price” for helping the authoritarian leader stay in the office he, and his late father before him, have held for 42 years. ID:nL6E8I62J4]
On Saturday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin shot back: “Any words and deeds that slander China and sow discord between China and other countries will be in vain.”
Russia and China say they are committed to the peace plan of U.N. envoy Kofi Annan that prescribes national dialogue, but reject the position of Western powers and their Gulf Arab allies that Assad must step down to enable reform in Syria.
Annan told French daily le Monde in an interview published on Saturday that Western criticism of Russia was diverting attention from the role of other countries in backing Assad and arming his soldiers, notably Iran.
“Russia has influence, but I don’t think that events will be determined by Russia alone. What strikes me is that there is so much talk about Russia and much less about Iran, and little is said about other countries that are sending money and weapons,” he said.
“All of these countries say that want a peaceful solution, but they undertake individual and collective actions that undermine the very meaning of (U.N.) Security Council resolutions,” he added.
Assad has been Shi‘ite Iran’s main ally in the Arab world.
Annan conceded that U.N. efforts to resolve the crisis so far had been a failure. “Clearly, we have not succeeded. And maybe there is no guarantee that we will succeed,” he said.
News on Friday that one of Assad’s personal friends had defected and was headed for exile in France was hailed by Clinton as proof that members of the Damascus leadership were starting to “vote with their feet” and leave a sinking ship.
Manaf Tlas, a Republican Guard brigadier and son of the longtime defence minister under Assad’s father Hafez, has yet to surface abroad or clearly to throw his lot in with the rebels.
But his desertion, leaked by family friends, was confirmed by the French government, giving a boost to the “Friends of Syria” conference it hosted in Paris where participants agreed to “massively increase” aid to Syria’s opposition.
Additional reporting by Roula Naeimeh and Nazih Siddiq in Beirut, Nicholas Vinocur in Paris; writing by Douglas Hamilton; editing by Mark Heinrich