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Sleiman to Damascus: Army confirmed Syrian attack

Ivory Coast's President Alassane Ouattara (R) and his Lebanese counterpart Michel Sleiman hold on March 15, 2013 a joint press conference at the Presidential Palace in Abidjan. (AFP PHOTO / ISSOUF SANOGO)

BEIRUT: President Michel Sleiman slammed Tuesday Syrian airstrikes that targeted Lebanese territories earlier this week and said the Army confirmed the attacks took place.

A few hours after Damascus denied reports that its jets fired rockets into Lebanon Monday, Sleiman told reporters in Lagos, Nigeria, that he verified the accuracy of the reports by holding multiple contacts with security officials.

“We heard Syria’s denial regarding the airstrikes, but Lebanese Army officials confirmed that the attack did take place,” said Sleiman, who added that the violation of the country’s sovereignty was “unacceptable.”

“President Michel Sleiman considers the Syrian air bombardment of Lebanese territory an unacceptable violation of sovereignty,” said a statement from Baabda Palace.

While the government has yet to confirm where and when Syrian jets and helicopters fired rockets at targets inside Lebanon earlier this week, the international community has condemned Damascus for the attack.

For its part, Damascus denied Tuesday that it had fired rockets inside Lebanon and said that such reports were part of a smear campaign by countries that fund the Syrian rebels.

According to the Syrian Arab News Agency, an official at the Syrian Foreign and Expatriates Ministry denied the reports of airstrikes, describing them as “false and completely baseless.”

“The Foreign and Expatriates Ministry reaffirms its respect for Lebanese sovereignty and keenness on the security and stability of friendly Lebanon,” SANA quoted the official saying.

The U.S. State Department also confirmed Monday that rockets were fired into northern Lebanon and said the move signaled a significant escalation in Syria’s tendency to violate of its neighbor’s sovereignty.

France also said the attack was a violation of the country’s sovereignty.

Syrian jets and helicopters fired four rockets hitting empty buildings inside Lebanon Monday, days after Damascus warned officials in Beirut it would attack suspected rebel sites if incursions from across the border did not stop.

The rockets hit the Arsal villages of Khirbet Youneen and Wadi al-Khayl in the Bekaa Valley, located approximately 5 kilometers away from the Syrian border. No casualties were reported in the attacks.

Sleiman also tasked Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour with issuing a letter of complaint to Damascus to prevent the recurrence of similar attacks.

But Mansour, who is accompanying Sleiman on his trip to West Africa, cast doubt on reports that Syrian jets fired rockets inside Lebanon and told reporters in Lagos that an investigation would be required to uncover more details before taking any measures.

In a separate interview with NBN television, Mansour said he was unable to issue a letter of complaint to Damascus because he touring Africa.

“Issuing such a complaint requires documents that I currently don’t have with me. I need to return to Lebanon to be able to work on it,” Mansour said.

Earlier this month, Mansour quarreled with Prime Minister Najib Mikati and Sleiman over his controversial remarks that Syria be reinstated in the Arab League, during the league’s meeting for foreign ministers in Cairo.

The Future Movement condemned the attacks in Arsal and criticized Damascus for continuing to violate the country’s sovereignty.

After a weekly bloc meeting at former Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s residence in Downtown Beirut, the Future Movement slammed the government’s silence on the attacks and failure to inform the public about the events.

“While the bloc praises President Michel Sleiman’s stance and his defense of the country’s sovereignty and national dignity, it is surprised over the government’s silence, inability to condemn and take the necessary measures in response,” said the bloc’s statement that was read by Beirut MP Atef Majdalani.

“It is surprising that the Defense Ministry has not provided the people with information about the attacks, as if the incident took place in a another country that only foreign governments have issued statements about,” he said.

The group also said that Syria’s violations of Lebanon’s sovereignty had reached a tipping point and now required officials to formally file complaints to the Arab League and the U.N.

“It is crucial to take immediate initiative and file complaints to the Arab League and the United Nations regarding the violations of the Syrian regime ... to inform them of criminal acts such as the one plotted by Michel Samaha,” Majdalani added.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 20, 2013, on page 3.

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