BEIRUT -- Street battles between pro- and anti-Syrian groups in the Lebanese capital killed two people overnight and wounded 15 as the spiraling conflict in neighboring Syria spilled across the border.
Some Beirut residents kept their children home from school following the fighting, which was among the worst the Lebanese capital has seen in four years. Gunmen fired rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns in battles that lasted more than four hours.
The streets were calmer Monday, but some shops remained closed.
The violence in the predominantly Sunni neighborhood of Tariq Jadidah erupted hours after an anti-Syrian cleric and his bodyguard were shot dead at a checkpoint in northern Lebanon, an incident that instantly spiked tensions.
Authorities braced for the possibility of more violence Monday in the north, where Sunni cleric Sheik Ahmed Abdul-Wahid and his bodyguard were to be buried. Gunmen carrying automatic rifles shouted for the downfall of the Syrian regime in the cleric's hometown of Beireh, where he was to be buried later in the day.
The fighting underscores how the bloodshed in Syria, where President Bashar Assad's regime is cracking down on an uprising against his rule, can fuel violence across the border in Lebanon.
Lebanon has a fragile political faultline precisely over the issue of Syria.
There is an array of die-hard pro-Syrian Lebanese parties and politicians, as well as support for the regime on the street level. There is an equally deep hatred of Assad among other Lebanese who fear Damascus is still calling the shots here. The two sides are the legacy of Syria's virtual rule over Lebanon from 1976 to 2005 and its continued influence since.
On Monday, a gunman in Beireh shouted "Down with Bashar!" and said the Syrian leader was trying to "transfer the crisis to Lebanon."
Lebanon and Syria share a complex web of political and sectarian ties and rivalries, which can easily turn violent. Last week, clashes sparked by the Syrian crisis killed at least eight people and wounded dozens in the northern city of Tripoli.
The revolt in Syria began 15 months ago, and there are fears the unrest will lead to a regional conflagration that could draw in neighboring countries. The U.N. estimates the conflict has killed more than 9,000 people since March 2011.
Syrian activists said regime forces killed dozens of people during a raid Sunday on the central town of Soran in Hama province, security officials said.
One activist group, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, put the death toll at 39, citing a network of sources on the ground. Syria-based activist Mustafa Osso said the figure was more than 20.
The death toll could not be independently confirmed.
A video posted online by activists showed the bodies of five people said to be of the same family who were killed during the shelling of Soran.
Syria is a geographical linchpin in the Middle East, raising the possibility that the crisis there will bleed into other countries.
The circumstances surrounding Sunday's shooting death of the Abdul-Wahid, the Sunni cleric, and his bodyguard remained unclear but the state-run National News Agency said they appeared to have been killed by soldiers after their convoy failed to stop at an army checkpoint.
The Lebanese army on Sunday issued a statement, saying it deeply regretted the incident and that a committee will investigate.
The clashes in Beirut subsided around 4 a.m. Monday after anti-Syrian gunmen took control of the headquarters of the pro-Syrian Arab Movement Party.
The fighting was among the most intense fighting in Beirut since May 2008, when gunmen from the Shiite Hezbollah militant group swept through Sunni neighborhoods after the pro-Western government tried to dismantle the group's telecommunications network.
More than 80 people were killed in the 2008 violence, pushing the country to the brink of civil war.
Also Monday, Syria's state-run news agency SANA, said Assad issued a presidential decree calling on the country's newly elected parliament to hold its first meeting on Thursday. A parliament speaker is usually elected on the first meeting of a new parliament.
Assad has pointed to the parliamentary elections earlier this month as a sign of his long-promised reforms, but the opposition dismissed the vote as a sham meant to preserve his autocratic rule.
____Malla reported from Beireh, Lebanon.
U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice tweets:
|@ AmbassadorRice : #Syria regime turned artillery, tanks and helicopters on its own men & women. It unleashed knife-wielding shabiha gangs on its own children.|
Russia says international envoy Kofi Annan will visit Moscow on Monday to discuss the ongoing crisis in Syria. Russia also called for an inquiry into an alleged massacre that took place in the village of Tramseh on Thursday. "We have no doubt that this wrongdoing serves the interests of those powers that are not seeking peace but persistently seek to sow the seeds of interconfessional and civilian conflict on Syrian soil," Russia's foreign ministry said in a statement, according to Reuters. Moscow did not apportion blame for the killings.
Read more on Reuters.com.
The Associated Press obtained a video that purports to show the aftermath of an alleged massacre in the village of Tramseh, near Hama.
How do Syria's fighters get their arms? An overview put together by Reuters explains that there are three gateways to the country -- Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq.
Syrian rebels are smuggling small arms into Syria through a network of land and sea routes involving cargo ships and trucks moving through Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq, maritime intelligence and Free Syrian Army (FSA) officers say. Western and regional powers deny any suggestion they are involved in gun running. Their interest in the sensitive border region lies rather in screening to ensure powerful weapons such as surface to air missiles do not find their way to Islamist or other militants.
Read the full report here.
This citizen journalism image made from video provided by Shaam News Network SNN, purports to show a man mourning a victim killed by violence that, according to anti-regime activists, was carried out by government forces in Tremseh, Syria about 15 kilometers (nine miles) northwest of the central city of Hama, Thursday, July 12, 2012. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network, SNN)
According to the Hama Revolutionary Council, a Syrian opposition group, more than 220 people have been killed in a new alleged massacre in Taramseh. Earlier reports said more than 100 people were killed. "More than 220 people fell today in Taramseh," the Council said in a statement. "They died from bombardment by tanks and helicopters, artillery shelling and summary executions."
Fadi Sameh, an opposition activist from Taramseh, told Reuters he had left the town before the reported massacre but was in touch with residents. "It appears that Alawite militiamen from surrounding villages descended on Taramseh after its rebel defenders pulled out, and started killing the people. Whole houses have been destroyed and burned from the shelling," Sameh claimed.
Read more on Reuters.com.
Syrian activist Rami Jarrah tweets that Syrian State TV has confirmed deaths in Tremseh. "Terrorists" is often the term used by the Syrian regime for opposition forces.
|@ AlexanderPageSY : Syrian State TV: clashes between security apparatus & terrorists in #Tremseh of #Hama leaves large numbers of terrorists killed #Syria|
|@ Reuters : UPDATE: DEATH TOLL IN SYRIAN FORCES' ATTACK ON VILLAGE IN SYRIA'S HAMA REGION IS MORE THAN 200, MOSTLY CIVILIANS - OPPOSITION ACTIVISTS|