Middle East

Syria threatens strike on ‘gangs’ in Lebanon

BEIRUT: As the Syrian conflict entered its third year Friday, international fears of a spillover of the conflict intensified after Damascus threatened to bomb “armed gangs” in Lebanon if incursions into its territory continue.

“Armed terrorist groups have infiltrated in large numbers in the past 36 hours from Lebanese territory into Syrian territory,” the Syrian Foreign Ministry wrote in a letter to its Lebanese counterpart Thursday.

It said Syrian forces had clashed with these groups on Syrian territory. “The clashes are ongoing,” it added.

The letter said Syrian forces were still exercising self-restraint by not striking “concentrations of armed gangs inside Lebanese territory in order to prevent them from crossing into Syrian territory.”

“But this will not last indefinitely,” the letter warned.

“Syria expects the Lebanese side not to allow those [groups] to use the border as a conduit because they are targeting the security of the Syrian people, violating Syrian sovereignty and exploiting the good brotherly relations between the two countries,” it added.

In a rare united declaration on the Syrian conflict, the Security Council expressed deep concern over the impact on Lebanon from the Syrian conflict, in a statement agreed at closed talks.

Council members “underscored their grave concern over repeated incidents of cross-border fire which caused death and injury among the Lebanese population, incursions, abductions and arms trafficking across the Lebanese-Syrian border, as well as other border violations.”

The statement was read to reporters by Russia’s U.N. envoy Vitaly Churkin.

The Security Council “underlined the importance of full respect for Lebanon’s sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity.”

It also expressed “deep concern at the impact of the Syrian crisis on Lebanon’s stability.”

Council members “appealed to all Lebanese people to preserve national unity in the face of attempts to undermine the country’s stability and stressed the need for all Lebanese parties to respect Lebanon’s policy of disassociation and to refrain from any involvement in the Syrian crisis.”

U.N. envoy to Lebanon Derek Plumbly said there was “ongoing concern about weapons smuggling and other breaches” of the border. He added that the Security Council statement was “important for Lebanon.” In Brussels, the French president stepped up calls to arm the rebels and regime warplanes bombarded opposition-held areas across the country.

President Francois Hollande urged Europe’s leaders to lift an arms embargo on Syria to help rebels battling Assad’s regime.

He spoke as London and Paris sought jointly to lift the embargo to enable them to arm the rebels, angering Damascus but drawing a cautious welcome from the opposition.

Arriving in Brussels for a two-day summit with EU leaders, Hollande told journalists: “We want Europeans to lift the arms embargo.”

“We are ready to support the rebellion, so we are ready to go this far. We must take our responsibilities.”

Syria’s official SANA news agency said it would be a “flagrant violation of the principles of international law ... to provide weapons to terrorist groups in Syria.”

Earlier, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told France Info radio that Britain and France would ask “the Europeans now to lift the embargo so that the resistance fighters have the possibility of defending themselves.”

Assad’s government is receiving weapons from Iran and Russia which gave it an edge over the opposition, Fabius said.

He said Paris and London would press for quick new EU talks on the arms embargo, which was extended on Feb. 28 for three months by EU foreign ministers, although such sanctions are constantly reviewed.

Fabius said the two governments were ready to go ahead with arms deliveries even without the support of their partners.

Hollande and British Prime Minister David Cameron met separately at the start of the summit and agreed they would discuss with other leaders what more the EU could do on the Syria embargo, Cameron’s spokeswoman said.

The arms embargo is “backfiring,” she said. “It doesn’t stop those aiding Assad, it does stop EU countries and others helping those against whom Assad is waging a brutal and terrorizing war,” she added.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu backed Fabius’ comments. “If the international community displayed in a very clear and decisive manner the will to stop the Syrian regime [from] waging war, there would be no need for any kind of arming,” he said.

Syria’s main opposition bloc, the National Coalition, welcomed Fabius’ comments, saying that Western arms deliveries would be essential to the success of the uprising. “As long as the Europeans and the Americans do not arm the rebels, they are telling Assad to keep fighting,” coalition spokesman Walid al-Bunni told AFP.

Regime warplanes bombarded rebel positions across Syria Thursday, a day on which violence claimed at least 133 lives, almost equally divided between civilians, rebels and soldiers, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, while fierce clashes raged near the ancient citadel in the central city of Homs.

U.N. peacekeepers monitoring the cease-fire line between Syria and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights Thursday halted patrols after rebels detained 21 observers for three days last week, diplomats said.

Also Thursday, Israel’s military intelligence chief said the Assad regime had contingency plans to use chemical weapons as it battles insurgents.

“Assad is making advance preparations to use chemical weapons. He did not give the order yet, but is preparing for it,” Maj. Gen. Avi Kohavi said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 15, 2013, on page 1.




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