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Syria Bombing: Explosion Hits Capital Damascus, Killing At Least 5

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By BASSEM MROUE, Associated Press

BEIRUT -- Activists and state media say a bomb has exploded in the Syrian capital, killing at least five people.

The blast appears to have targeted a restaurant, according to photographs released Tuesday by the state-run news agency SANA.

SANA and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights activist group said the blast occurred late Monday in the Damascus neighborhood of Qaboun.

Qaboun has been the site of anti-government protests since the uprising against President Bashar Assad's regime began in March 2011.

The tightly-controlled Syrian capital has been hit by a wave of explosions, mostly targeting security agencies.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.

BIREH, Lebanon (AP) - Syria's war barreled over the border with an angry, raucous funeral Monday for an anti-Syrian cleric whose killing set off a night of deadly street battles in Beirut and raised fears that Lebanon is getting drawn into the chaos afflicting its neighbor.

The violence is a reflection of Lebanon's political dysfunction, a legacy of years of civil war when the country became a proxy battleground for other nations. Lebanon walks a fragile fault line over Syria, which had troops on the ground here for nearly 30 years until 2005 and still has strong ties to Lebanon's security services.

To many observers, it was only a matter of time before the violence in Syria infected Lebanon. The U.N. estimates the Syrian conflict has killed more than 9,000 people since March 2011, when President Bashar Assad started cracking down on a popular uprising.

"The Syrian regime is seeking to sow chaos in Lebanon!" Khaled Daher, a Sunni member of parliament, said during a fiery speech Monday at the funeral for Sheik Ahmed Abdul-Wahid, the slain anti-Syrian cleric. "But we will not be scared."

Daher stood surrounded by Sunni clerics and armed gunmen in the northern village of Bireh, Abdul-Wahid's hometown. Syria is visible across the border, on the other side of a green valley dotted with homes and farms.

Gunmen shouting "Down with Bashar!" roamed the streets ahead of the funeral procession, which drew thousands of people who fired their rifles in the air as a sign of mourning.

Abdul-Wahid and his bodyguard were gunned down Sunday by a Lebanese soldier, apparently after the men failed to stop at an army checkpoint.

The exact circumstances of the shooting remain murky, however, fueling already boiling tensions in Lebanon between pro- and anti-Syrian factions. The countries share a complex web of political and sectarian ties and rivalries, which can easily turn violent.

"They killed him because he supported the Syrian revolution, he was very active," said Abdel-Aziz Dandal, a 45-year-old resident of Bireh.

He said the cleric had been recently elected head of the local council and was expected to become the head of a regional council for about a dozen villages. Many residents said he had made support for Syrian refugees and the uprising central to his work.

The killings unleashed the most serious outbreak of violence in the Lebanese capital since the Syrian uprising began 15 months ago, as Lebanese Sunni groups supporting and opposing the Damascus regime fired rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns through the night.

At least two people were killed and 15 were wounded.

Last week, several days of clashes sparked by the Syrian crisis killed at least eight people and wounded dozens in the northern city of Tripoli.

Police commander Maj. Gen. Ashraf Rifi toured Beirut's Tariq Jadidah neighborhood, scene of the overnight clashes, and said "things will be getting better." He said police and armed forces sent patrols into Tariq Jadidah to "reassure the people."

The streets were calmer by Monday morning but some shops remained closed and many parents kept children home from school.

The battles pitted supporters of the anti-Syrian Future Movement, the party of the former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, against those of the pro-Syrian Arab Movement Party.

The U.S. expressed concern over the security situation in Lebanon.

"We welcome the commitment of the Lebanese government and the Lebanese Armed Forces to conduct a swift and transparent investigation of the shooting incident, and we call on all parties to exercise restraint and respect for Lebanon's security and stability," U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said.

The Shiite militant group Hezbollah, which is the most powerful armed force in Lebanon, did not appear to have any direct role in the fighting. Hezbollah is a strong ally of Syria.

There is an array of die-hard pro-Syrian parties and politicians in Lebanon, as well as support for the regime on the street level.

But 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, when Syrian troops were driven out.

During the time of blatant Syrian dominance, Lebanese leaders used to travel frequently to Damascus to get marching orders.

Tensions between the two sides are high enough. But Syria opponents worry the regime may intentionally cause trouble.

The Lebanese army has promised to investigate the cleric's killing. But both sides of the conflict are polarized. Regime opponents say Syria is trying to stir up trouble in Lebanon to deflect attention from the troubles at home, and to show that Assad is capable of destabilizing the region if threatened.

But the pro-Syrian factions say it's not in their interest to see chaos in northern Lebanon, where rebels are trying to smuggle fighters and weapons into Syria. Assad has long said the revolt against him is the result of a foreign conspiracy.

Amid fears the situation might deteriorate, four Gulf countries - Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates - have warned their citizens against travel to Lebanon. The warnings are a blow to Lebanon's summer holiday season, a pillar of the economy.

The Supreme Islamic Legislative Council, the top Sunni religious body in Lebanon, described Abdul-Wahid's killing as an "assassination crime par excellence" and urged self restraint. It also wants to refer the killing to the Judicial Council, which is charged with cases seen as destabilizing national security.

The Beirut clashes were among the most serious battles in the capital since May 2008, when Hezbollah gunmen swept through Sunni neighborhoods after the pro-Western government tried to dismantle the group's telecommunications network. At the time, more than 80 people were killed in the violence, pushing Lebanon to the brink of civil war.

Inside Syria on Monday, activists said regime forces killed dozens of people Sunday in a raid on the central town of Soran in Hama province.

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.

As the violence intensifies, there are growing fears that al-Qaida or other extremists could be joining the fray. In a statement posted on a militant website late Sunday, a group calling itself the Al-Nusra Front claimed responsibility for a suicide car bombing Saturday in the eastern city of Deir el-Zour that killed nine people.

Little is known about the group, although Western intelligence officials say it could be a front for a branch of al-Qaida militants from Iraq operating in Syria. The group claimed responsibility for several other suicide attacks in Syria.

The U.N. has an observer mission in the country with about 270 unarmed monitors, but it has not stopped the violence.

U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous warned Monday that terrorists are trying to exploit the crisis between the government and the opposition.

"A third party, terrorist groups, are trying to gain advantage for themselves," he said during a press conference in Damascus.

On Monday, residents in Lebanon said their problems will persist as long as there is unrest in Syria.

"The Syrian regime has supporters here and they are inciting," said Dandal, the Bireh resident. "The problems will continue as long as there are problems in Syria."


Kennedy reported from Beirut. AP writers Hussein Malla in Bireh and Bassem Mroue and Zeina Karam in Beirut contributed to this report.

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syria car bomb Syrian policemen inspect the site of a car bomb explosion on Mazzeh highway in the capital Damascus on July 13, 2012. AFP PHOTO/STR (Photo credit should read -/AFP/GettyImages)

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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.

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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.


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The Associated Press obtained a video that purports to show the aftermath of an alleged massacre in the village of Tramseh, near Hama.

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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.

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syria This citizen journalism image made from video provided by Shaam News Network SNN, purports to show a victim wounded 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. The accounts, some of which claim more than 200 people were killed in the violence Thursday, could not be independently confirmed, but would mark the latest in a string of brutal offensives by Syrian forces attempting to crush the rebellion. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network, SNN)

syria 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)

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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.


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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

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@ Reuters : At least 100 killed in Syrian village: opposition activists

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