SERHANIYEH, Lebanon — Syria has planted land mines along parts of its border with Lebanon, further sealing itself off from the world and showing just how deeply shaken Bashar Assad's regime has become since an uprising began nearly eight months ago.
Although Assad's hold on power is firm, the 46-year-old eye doctor is taking increasingly desperate measures to safeguard his grip on the country of 22 million people at the heart of the Arab world. A Syrian official confirmed to The Associated Press that troops were laying the mines, saying they were aimed at stopping weapons smuggling into the country during the uprising.
"Syria has undertaken many measures to control the borders, including planting mines," a Syrian official familiar with government strategy told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. Witnesses on the Lebanese side also told the AP they have seen Syrian soldiers planting the mines in recent days.
But the verdant mountains and hills along the frontier are used by refugees fleeing Syria's deadly military assault on protesters and by Syrians who have jobs and families on the Lebanese side. The decision to plant mines – terrifying weapons that often maim their victims if they don't kill them – suggests the regime is trying to contain a crisis that is spinning out of its control.
The mines also are the latest sign that Syria is working to prevent Lebanon from becoming a safe haven for the Syrian opposition as the uprising continues and the death toll mounts. The U.N. says about 3,000 people have been killed by security forces since March.
A Syrian man whose foot had to be amputated after he stepped on a mine just across from the Lebanese village of Irsal on Sunday was the first known victim of the mines, according to a doctor at a hospital in Lebanon where the man was treated. The doctor asked that his name not be published out of fear of repercussions because of the sensitivity of the case.
Vali Nasr, a Middle East expert and former State Department official in the Obama administration, also said the mining shows Assad is taking every measure to choke off opposition to his family's 40-year dynasty.
"Mining the borders is a way of tightening the noose. It cuts off flow of people both ways, and is also a warning to neighbors not to interfere," Nasr told the AP.
He said the move also betrays fears that countries may want to move beyond the economic sanctions already in place to send support to the opposition by land.
"The next step after sanctions could be more active material support for the opposition which would have to come over the borders," Nasr said.
Assad already has warned world powers – fresh from their victory over Moammar Gadhafi in Libya – that the entire Middle East will go up in flames if there is any foreign intervention in his country. Assad regularly plays on fears that he is a bulwark against regional turmoil, sectarian violence and Islamic extremism.
Syria is indeed a regional nexus, bordering five countries with which it shares religious and ethnic minorities and in the case of Israel, a fragile truce that is key to regional stability.
Syria's web of alliances also extends to Lebanon's powerful Hezbollah movement and Iran's Shiite theocracy.
But the regime's crackdown has resulted in the most severe international condemnation the Assad dynasty has seen in decades. Sanctions from the European Union and the U.S. are chipping away at the ailing economy and many leaders have called on Assad to step down. Turkey, until recently an ally, has opened its borders to anti-Assad activists and breakaway military rebels.
The 22-nation Arab League has been trying to help end the bloodshed, and Syria's state-run news agency said late Tuesday that Damascus had agreed to the league's plan on the crisis. There were no details on what the plan entailed. But an official announcement was expected Wednesday at the Arab League headquarters in Cairo.
There was no immediate sign of Syria mining the Jordanian, Iraqi or Turkish borders, although most of Turkey's 545-mile (880-kilometer) frontier with Syria already has been heavily mined since 1950s.
Syria and Lebanon share a 230-mile (365-kilometer) border, although it appears the land mines have been planted in two main areas in and around the restive province of Homs, which has endured some of the worst bloodshed. The mines have been seen in Homs province just across the border from Serhaniyeh, Lebanon, and in the Baalbek region bordering Homs and the Damascus countryside.
Homs has seen violent clashes between Syrian troops and army defectors – a real concern for a regime that counts on the loyalty of its armed forces. Some 20 soldiers were reported killed over the weekend in Homs. The border villages also are inhabited mostly Sunni Muslims. Syria is predominantly Sunni, although Assad and the ruling elite belong to the tiny Alawite sect.
Three residents of the Lebanese border village of Serhaniyeh showed an AP reporter a long sand dune barrier on the frontier where they said Syrian troops laid mines. Ahmed Diab said several trucks carrying about a 100 soldiers arrived Thursday and spent the entire day planting mines on the side of the barriers that faces toward Lebanon.
"Since they planted the mines, no one dares to go to the border line," Diab said as he sat on his motorcycle near his home that overlooks parts of Homs province.
Many Syrians cross the border into Lebanon regularly, including some 5,000 who have fled to Lebanon since the crisis began in March. Some of them are dissidents who feels a relative sense of security in Lebanon – but that might be changing. There have been at least three cases this year of Syrian dissidents being snatched off the streets in Lebanon and spirited back across the border, Lebanese police say.
The abductions have raised alarm among some in Lebanon that members of the country's security forces are helping Assad's regime in its crackdown on anti-government protesters, effectively extending it into Lebanon.
Syria had direct control over Lebanon for nearly 30 years before pulling out its troops in 2005 under local and international pressure. But Damascus still has great influence, and pro-Syrian factions led by the militant group Hezbollah dominate the government in Beirut.
There also have been reports of Syrian troops crossing into Lebanon to pursue dissidents. In September, the Lebanese army said Syrian soldiers briefly crossed the frontier and opened fire at people trying to flee the violence in Syria.
A senior Lebanese security official confirmed that Syrian troops are planting mines on the Syrian side of the border, but said Beirut will not interfere with actions on Syrian territory.
Associated Press writers Elizabeth A. Kennedy in Beirut and Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, contributed to this report.
Bassem Mroue can be reached on http://twitter.com/bmroue