Syria helicopter raid sparks Lebanon Army warning

Lebanon`s Army warned it will hit back against any new attacks from Syria after a helicopter gunship struck an eastern town.

Last Updated: Jun 12, 2013, 23:13 PM IST

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 some 60 Shi`ites killed in the latest outbreak of worsening sectarian violence in Syria.

A Syrian helicopter gunship fired two rockets at 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".

Lebanon`s President Michel Sleiman called the attack "a violation of Lebanon`s sovereignty" and said Beirut has the right to take steps to defend itself and to "submit a complaint" to the UN and the Arab League.

Most residents of Arsal, in the hills just 12 kilometres (7.5 miles) from the border with Syria, support the Sunni-led uprising against the Assad regime.

The majority of Syria`s population is Sunni but it has been ruled by more than 40 years by the Assad clan from the Alawite community, an offshoot of Shi`ite 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 spillover attacks in Lebanon involving both sides in Syria, but Wednesday`s Army statement was the first of its kind in the nearly 27-month conflict.

Lebanon`s poorly-equipped Army normally coordinates closely with the Syrian military.

Damascus dominated Lebanon politically and military for 30 years until 2005, and still exerts significant influence through its allies there.

Arsal has been used as a conduit for weapons and rebels to enter Syria, while also serving as a refuge for people fleeing the conflict.

Dozens of people wounded in fighting in Qusayr -- mostly rebels -- flocked to Arsal last week as Syria`s Army and fighters from the Lebanese Shi`ite movement Hezbollah overran the former insurgent bastion.

In a new macabre episode, Sunni Islamist rebels celebrated the killing of some 60 Shi`ites, mostly pro-regime fighters, according to amateur video distributed by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

"Look Shi`ites, this is how you will end up, you dogs," cries one man shown in footage filmed in Hatlah village, in the eastern Syrian province of Deir Ezzor.

The rebels assaulted Hatlah in retaliation after Shi`ite fighters from the village attacked a rebel position, killing two insurgents, said the Observatory.

Boosted by their victory in Qusayr, regime troops advanced on parts of the nearby city of Homs, as they prepared to assault Aleppo in the north, the Observatory said.

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 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 appears to have stalled as Assad`s forces make battlefield gains.

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.

As the Syrian war looked increasingly set to spill over, Israeli air force pilots said they are training daily to meet any threat posed by regional instability.

Meanwhile, UN leader Ban Ki-moon called for better protection for UN peacekeepers tasked with monitoring the armistice zone in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

Ban made the call as some 70 soldiers from the 378-strong Austrian contingent began withdrawing from the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) after attacks and abductions of peacekeepers.

Croatia and Japan peacekeepers have also withdrawn in recent months.