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15 Mar, 2013 13:30

Damascus warns of strike on Syrian rebels hiding in Lebanon

Damascus warns of strike on Syrian rebels hiding in Lebanon

Syria says its patience is “not unlimited” and its army could launch a strike against rebels hiding out in Lebanon. The rebels have been using the Lebanese border as an entry point into Syria, and Damascus wants the Lebanese army to act.

The Syrian Foreign Ministry aimed its comments on Thursday after a “large number” of militants had supposedly crossed Lebanon’s northern border into the Syrian town of Tel Kalakh during the previous couple of days.

“The terrorist groups are still present inside Lebanese territory, they can be easily seen by our forces who are practicing the utmost degrees of self-restraint,”  said a cable sent to the Lebanese Foreign Ministry, according to Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA).

A large number of casualties reportedly resulted from the incident, and the gunmen later retreated back over the border. Syria said that in addition to the “clear logistic support from inside Lebanon,” the killed and injured members of the armed gangs were transported by ambulance into Lebanon. The violence had been taking place for some 36 hours prior to their retreat, and the trickle in of gunmen and weapons began on the dawn of March 12th, according to SANA.

Some clashes are reportedly still taking place.

Syria has thus far – in its own words – ‘exercised restraint’ despite the anti-government forces basing themselves in Lebanese territory, just to the west of the Syrian border.

“Syria expects the Lebanese side to prevent these armed terrorist groups from using the borders as a crossing point, because they target Syrian people and are violating Syrian sovereignty,” said the diplomatic telegram, according to Reuters.

Lebanese Army soldiers patrol the Sunni Muslim Bab al-Tebbaneh neighbourhood in Tripoli, northern Lebanon.(AFP Photo / Omar Ibrahim)

The telegram requested that Lebanese officials “exert their efforts in controlling the borders with Syria in commitment to security in both lands and to protect the innocent citizens' spirits and not to escalate [the] situation which those groups seek to.” The Syrian FM said that rebels were “exploit[ing] good brotherly relations between the two countries.”

Lebanon is attempting to distance itself from the conflict in Syria. However, officials speculate the country is at increasing risk of being dragged into the civil war across the border.

Not only have tensions escalated between the two countries’ Foreign Ministries, but also between different Lebanese groups within Lebanon that support the Syrian opposition and groups that support President Assad.

On Thursday, the UN expressed grave concern over the state of affairs on the border, which included cross-border fire and other violations.

The Lebanese city of Tripoli has already seen violence spill over from Syria largely because of its mixed sectarian make up. Tripoli is majority Sunni, and mostly support the uprising in Syria – but is also home to Alawite minority enclaves loyal to Assad.

Lebanon was shaken by its own civil war between 1975 and 1990, and pre-existing sectarian tensions between Christians, Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims have been exacerbated by the fighting in Syria. Over a million Syrians are believed to be currently residing in Lebanon.