BEIRUT — Four Shiite Lebanese men were killed Sunday in an ambush in a volatile area by the border with Syria, hiking already high sectarian tensions and concerns over the spillover of the civil war raging next door.
Gunmen from the families of the slain Shiites took to the streets and set up roadblocks between their town and the neighboring Sunni majority town of Arsal, accusing residents there of being behind the killings.
The delicate religious and sectarian balance in Lebanon, home to more than 18 sects, has been disrupted by the war across the border in Syria. Tensions have been high for months, with Lebanon's Sunnis largely supporting their brethren in Syria who make up the majority of the rebellion, while Shiites have supported President Bashar Assad.
But Lebanon's splits have been further inflamed after Lebanon's Shiite Hezbollah group openly joined the fight in Syria on the side of Assad, helping his troops crush rebels in a town just over the border in Syria. Since then, Syria's rebels have vowed vengeance on Hezbollah, and the conflict, now in its third year, has moved toward a regional sectarian fight.
In a speech Friday, the leader of the Hezbollah said he will not tolerate any criticism of his group's role in Syria because it was a duty to defend Syria, and ultimately Lebanon, against a U.S-Israel plot to divide and weaken the region. He also said his group will support the regime of Assad wherever needed.
Hardline Sunni clerics in Lebanon have also backed Lebanese fighters on the side of the rebels. A prominent ultraconservative Sunni Salafi cleric from northern Lebanon, Al-Islam Al-Shahal, told a popular private TV station Sunday that Sunni able men should make Syria their "tourist destination for holy war" this summer. Al-Shahal's son fought in Syria.
The Syrian uprising began more than two years ago with peaceful protests against Assad, but later grew into a civil war that has killed 93,000 people and probably many more, according to the U.N.
Late Sunday, an explosion shook the western Damascus neighborhood of Mazzeh, and Syrian state TV said "terrorists" — the term the regime uses for rebels — had attempted to hit a military airbase there.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has a wide network of activists on the ground in Syria, said a car bomb detonated at a checkpoint near the military airport in Mazzeh. It said there were reports of casualties, but it did not have specific numbers.
Most of the armed rebels in Syria are from the country's Sunni majority, while Assad has retained core support among the minorities, including his own Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, along with Christians and Shiites.
In the past year, sectarian bitterness has grown in the conflict. Each sect has been accused of massacres against the other, and Sunni and Shiite fighters from other countries have increasingly joined the battle.
The conflict has pitted regional rival Sunni and Shiite heavy weights in the region, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, each backing opposite side on the battlefield and igniting sectarian fervor across the region. Its impact has also spilled over into neighboring Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Israel.
The four Shiites were ambushed and killed in the northern part of Lebanon's Beqaa Valley, near the Syrian border, security officials said. They said it was not immediately clear who was behind the attack and what the motive was. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press.
Their bodies were found in an SUV on a road in a remote hilly area near the mainly Shiite towns of Ras Baalbek and al-Qaa, they said.
The men were from the powerful local Shiite clans of Jaafar and Amhaz, and gunmen from the families fanned out in streets between their hometown Labwa and the nearby Sunni-majority Arsal. The father of one of the killed, Hussein Amhaz, blamed Arsal residents for the attacks. Shiites in the area have accused Sunnis in Arsal people of firing rockets at them in past weeks, but security officials say there is no evidence that is true.
Fearing the killing would spiral into outright confrontations, the Lebanese military deployed in the area and appealed in a statement for restraint "in this critical period the country is going through."
The military "will not permit anyone to take advantage of this painful incident to strike at national unity," the statement said.
The local notables of Arsal issued a statement denouncing the killing, calling it an attempt to "drive a wedge and ignite sectarian sedition" between the peoples of the region. A prominent TV station, Al-Jadeed, said a delegation of Hezbollah leaders visited the families of the killed and said the statement of Arsal notables was not sufficient, urging them to handover the culprits.
The local leaders of Hezbollah and Amal, another major Shiite group in Lebanon, issued a statement late Sunday saying the killings of the four men was carried out by "'paid agents looking to ignite strife in the region using artificial pretexts." The statement said the state must "strike with an iron fist" and arrest the culprits.
Inside Syria, in a recent attack that underlined the heightened sectarian hatreds, activists said videos that surfaced this week show extremists fighters of an al-Qaida affiliated group blowing up a Shiite shrine in a village in the eastern Deir al-Zour province in Syria, along the border with Iraq.
Last week rebels battled Shiite pro-regime militiamen in the village of Hatla in the Deir el-Zour, killing more than 60 Shiite fighters and civilians, according to activists.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the video shows the destruction of a shrine in Hatla. In the video, fighters are seen walking into the building and stomping on religious books, some with covers showing pictures of Shiite clerics, before blowing up the shrine.
Rami Abdul-Rahman, director of the Observatory, said that the shrine was demolished Friday, three days after the battle.
"It's clear that they want to root out Hatla's Shiite inhabitants," he told The Associated Press.
One video of the explosion was also posted on the Facebook page of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, a Sunni extremist group announced by the head of Iraq's al-Qaida arm, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in April.
The group's role in the Syrian conflict has been contentious within al-Qaida. Al-Baghdadi announced the group was being formed through a merger with his Islamic State of Iraq group and Syria's Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaida affiliate that has emerged as one of the most effective rebel factions in Syria.
Al-Nusra leader Abu Mohammad al-Golani quickly rebuffed the takeover attempt, and last week Al-Qaida's global leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was quoted as trying to end the squabbling and insisting that the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant should be dissolved.
Associated Press writers Zeina Karam in Beirut and Jamal Halaby in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report.