BEIRUT: Lebanon’s army warned it will hit back against any new attacks from Syria after a helicopter gunship struck an eastern town on Wednesday, ratcheting up tensions ahead of US-British talks on the conflict.
The escalation came hours after the emergence of video footage showing the mutilated corpse of one of about 60 Shiites slain in the latest outbreak of worsening sectarian violence in Syria.
A Syrian helicopter gunship fired two rockets on the centre of Arsal, a Lebanese town populated mostly by Sunni Muslims, wounding one person, Lebanon’s army said.
In a rare warning against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, it said Lebanese troops “took the necessary defensive measures to respond immediately to any similar violations”.
The majority of Syria’s population is Sunni but has been ruled by more than 40 years by the Assad clan, who belong to the Alawite community, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
The Syria conflict erupted in March 2011 following a bloody regime crackdown on Arab Spring-inspired democracy protests.
Since then, there have been several aerial and shelling attacks of Lebanon by both sides, but Wednesday’s army statement was the first of its kind in the nearly 27-month conflict.
Arsal has been used as a conduit for weapons and rebel fighters to enter into Syria, while it has also served as a refuge for people fleeing the conflict for the safety of Lebanon.
Dozens of people wounded in fighting in Qusayr — most of them rebel fighters — flocked to Arsal for treatment last week as Syria’s army and fighters from the Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah overran the former insurgent bastion.
In a new macabre episode of the war, Sunni Islamist rebels celebrated the killing of some 60 Shiites, mostly pro-regime fighters, according to amateur video distributed by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
“Look Shiites, this is how you will end up, you dogs,” cries one man shown in the footage filmed in the village of Hatlah, in the eastern Syrian province of Deir Ezzor.
“God is greatest. All the Shiite houses have been burned down… Look at the fighters of the jihad (holy war) celebrating their entry into the Shiite infidels’ houses,” says a man filming a second video.
France meanwhile urged the international community to stop the Assad regime.
“We need to re-balance things because over the past few weeks the troops of Bashar al-Assad and especially Hezbollah and the Iranians, along with Russian arms, have gained considerable ground,” said Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius.
He did not elaborate on how they should be stopped.
On Tuesday, Fabius accused Assad of using “chemical weapons in an outrageous manner”.
“We must stop him because, if there is no re-balancing on the ground, there will be no peace conference in Geneva as the opposition will refuse to come.”
A US-Russian peace initiative to bring regime and opposition representatives to the negotiating table appears stalled as Assad’s forces make advances on the battlefield.
In Washington, Secretary of State John Kerry is set to meet his British counterpart William Hague, a day after President Barack Obama asked his security team to “look at all options” to help the opposition.
Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron said staunch Assad backer Russian President Vladimir Putin would fly to London for talks on Syria next week.
The announcement comes a day after Putin said he believed Assad should have implemented political reforms that could have averted the current bloodbath.
Syria’s regime has consistently refused to recognise the existence of any popular uprising against Assad, blaming all violence on foreign-backed “terrorists”.