Middle East

Lebanon Clashes Blamed On Spillover From Syria

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Intense fighting in Lebanon has killed more than a dozen people over the past week. One deadly battle was sparked by the murder of an anti-Syrian Lebanese cleric. The violence is stoking fears that the conflict in Syria is spreading to its neighbors.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Ever since Syria descended into a brutal armed conflict, there have been fears that the sectarian bloodletting would spill over its borders. That may have come to pass. This past week, clashes in neighboring Lebanon have left more than a dozen people dead. NPR's Kelly McEvers has the story from Beirut.

KELLY MCEVERS: The violence here in Lebanon started about a week ago, when a Sunni man who allegedly provided aid to Syrian rebels was picked up by Lebanese intelligence and detained. That sparked fighting between Sunnis in the northern city of Tripoli and their main rivals the Alawites.

It's a divide that's replicated in Syria. The Syrian regime is led by Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, and those who oppose it are mostly Sunnis. Then, over the weekend, a Sunni cleric who was known to help Syrian refugees in Lebanon was shot and killed at a checkpoint with his companion. The Lebanese army says soldiers shot the two men because they tried to flee the checkpoint.

At the cleric's funeral in northern Lebanon yesterday, mourners carried his body through a crowd of armed men, many of whom wore masks and carried flags with Islamist messages.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)

MCEVERS: The shots were fired into the air, but the message was clear. We are here, we are armed, and we are angry. The death of the cleric has enraged Sunnis around Lebanon. And it's not only about Syria. Sunnis here have taken a backseat to more powerful Shiite political parties and militias led by the group Hezbollah. Now the crackdown on Sunnis who help Syrian rebels and refugees has only made the situation worse.

After the cleric was killed, Sunnis in Lebanon's capital, Beirut, attacked a pro-Shiite political office. The army responded but was unable to restore calm. Three people were killed and many more were injured. Now, Sunnis are demanding an investigation into the death of the cleric and what they call widespread mistreatment by the Lebanese army, says member of parliament Muaim Merabi.

MUAIM MERABI: It's not the first time really. It's maybe the tenth time. And we cannot accept it again. We cannot tolerate it.

MCEVERS: The Lebanese Army says it is investigating the shooting. And for the past 24 hours, the situation has calmed down. But most analysts here fear it's a calm that's not likely to last.

Kelly McEvers, NPR News, Beirut.

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