2 rockets hit Lebanese Hezbollah stronghold

Associated Press
A Lebanese man looks at a part of a rocket, seen on the ground, which struck a car exhibit, near a damaged car at the Mar Mikhael district south of Beirut, Lebanon, Sunday May 26, 2013. Rockets slammed Sunday into two Beirut neighborhoods that are strongholds of Lebanon's Hezbollah group, wounding at least 4 people, Lebanese security officials and media said. Tensions have been running high in Lebanon, and Syrian rebels have threatened to retaliate against the militant Shiite Hezbollah group for sending fighters to assist President Bashar Assad's forces in Syria. (AP Photo/Ahmad Omar)
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BEIRUT (AP) — A pair of rockets slammed into a car dealership and a residential building in strongholds of Lebanon's Hezbollah militant group in Beirut on Sunday, wounding four people in a new sign that Syria's civil war is increasingly rattling its fragile neighbor.

Lebanon's sectarian divide mirrors that of Syria, and Lebanese armed factions have increasingly taken sides in the fighting next door. There was no claim of responsibility for Sunday's rocket attacks, but they struck just hours after Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah vowed to propel Syrian President Bashar Assad to victory.

In Baghdad, Syria's foreign minister offered the first direct confirmation that the Assad regime is willing to take part in talks aimed at ending the Syrian conflict. A U.N.-sponsored conference, envisioned for next month in Geneva, is to bring together representatives of the Assad regime and the Syrian opposition for talks on a political transition.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said Sunday the government is willing "in principle" to participate in the conference. He added that such talks present a "good opportunity for a political solution for the crisis in Syria," but did not say under what terms Assad would dispatch representatives.

The date, agenda and list of participants for the conference remain unclear, and wide gaps remain about its objectives.

Syrian opposition leaders have said they are willing to attend the Geneva talks, but that Assad's departure from power must top the agenda. Assad said this month that his future won't be determined by international talks and that he will only step down after elections are held.

The foreign minister's statement puts more pressure on Syria's fractured political opposition to signal acceptance as well. The main bloc, the Syrian National Coalition, was meeting in Istanbul for the fourth day Sunday to come up with a unified position on the proposed peace talks, elect new leaders and expand membership.

Louay Safi, a senior member of the coalition, said participants were bogged down in talks about the expansion, and won't be able to issue a formal statement on the Geneva talks until membership issues are settled.

The opposition's Western and Arab allies remain skeptical about the Syrian regime's commitment to negotiations. They have warned Assad that they will step up aid to Syrian rebels if the regime does not negotiate in good faith — though U.S. reluctance to arm the rebels may have taken the bite out of such threats.

Meanwhile, fighting has continued unabated inside Syria.

For the past week, regime troops and its Hezbollah allies have waged an offensive against the strategic rebel-held town of Qusair in western Syria. They have gained ground amid heavy shelling, but rebels have held some positions.

The Qusair battle has laid bare Hezbollah's growing role in the Syrian conflict. The Shiite militant group, which has been fighting alongside Assad's troops, initially tried to play down its involvement, but could no longer do so after dozens of its fighters were killed in Qusair and buried in large funerals in Lebanon.

On Saturday, Hezbollah's leader firmly linked his militia's fate to the survival of the Syrian regime, raising the stakes not just in Syria, but also in Hezbollah's relations with rival groups in Lebanon.

"We will continue this road until the end, we will take the responsibility and we will make all the sacrifices," he said in a televised speech. "We will be victorious."

Hours after the speech, two rockets struck neighborhoods in south Beirut, a rare occurrence even in a country used to sectarian strife. Street fighting between rival Lebanese groups has been relatively common since the end of the country's 15-year civil war in 1990, but rocket or artillery attacks on Beirut neighborhoods are unusual.

One rocket struck a car dealership in the Mar Mikhael district on the southern edge of the capital, wounding four Syrian workers, according to Lebanese security officials.

After the attack, part of the rocket's main body was left embedded in the ground, where a Lebanese soldier measured its diameter. Two cars were badly damaged and others had windows shattered by shrapnel.

Another rocket hit the second floor of an apartment building in the Chiyah district, about two kilometers (one mile) away. It damaged a living room, but no one was hurt.

Lebanese media said security forces were searching for a third unexploded rocket.

A security official said rocket launchers were found in the woods in a predominantly Christian and Druse area in suburbs southeast of Beirut. The official spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

Earlier this week, a rebel commander threatened to strike Beirut's southern suburbs in retaliation for Hezbollah's involvement in Syria. The threat was made in a video showing Col. Abdul-Jabbar al-Aqidi, commander of the Syrian rebels' Military Council in Aleppo, while apparently en route to Qusair.

"We used to say before, 'We are coming Bashar.' Now we say, 'We are coming Bashar and we are coming Hassan Nasrallah,'" the commander says in the video.

"We will strike at your strongholds in Dahiyeh," he says, using the Lebanese name for Hezbollah's power center in south Beirut. The video was still posted online on Youtube on Sunday.

Hezbollah lawmaker Ali Ammar said the rocket attack took aim at coexistence among Lebanon's numerous sects and claimed the U.S. and Israel want to return Lebanon to the years of civil war. "They want to throw Lebanon backward into the traps of civil wars that we left behind," he told reporters. "We will not go backward."

Interior Minister Marwan Charbel blamed "saboteurs" and said: "We hope what is happening in Syria does not move to Lebanon."

Lebanese Sunnis sympathetic to the Syrian opposition have also been fighting in Syria alongside the rebels. Nasrallah urged both sides to fight for their side in Syria "and leave Lebanon out of it."

The fighting next door has repeatedly spilled over the border. For the past week, Assad's opponents and supporters have been clashing in the Lebanese port city of Tripoli, using mortars, grenades and machine guns to attack densely populated areas.

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Associated Press writer Sinan Salah in Baghdad, Iraq contributed reporting.

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