(Reuters) – Syria’s conflict spilled further into Lebanon on Saturday when mortar fire from government forces crashed into villages in the north, killing two women and a man after rebels crossed the border for refuge, residents said.
In contrast with Turkey, which openly harbors rebels fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Lebanon was not expected to respond militarily and has played down the effect of regular clashes along the frontier.
But rebels have used north Lebanon as a base and Assad’s forces have at times bombed villages and even crossed the border in pursuit of militants, threatening to inflame tensions in Lebanon given a long history of Syrian domination there.
Residents of Lebanon’s Wadi Khaled region said several mortar bombs hit farm buildings five to 20 km (3 to 12 miles) from the border at around 2 a.m. At midday villagers reported more explosions and said they heard gunfire close to the border.
In the village of al-Mahatta, a house was destroyed, killing a 16-year-old girl and wounding a two-year old and a four-year old, family members told Reuters. A 25-year-old woman and a man were killed in nearby villages, residents said.
The Lebanese army issued a brief statement about the incident. There was no immediate response from the prime minister or the foreign ministry, both of whom have expressed fears that Lebanon could be dragged into the conflict.
Turkey reinforced its border and scrambled fighter aircraft on several occasions last week after Syria shot down a Turkish warplane on June 22.
In Syria, the army bombarded towns across northern Aleppo province on Saturday in a concerted effort to root out insurgents who have taken control of some areas, the anti-government Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
“The bombing is the heaviest since the start of military operations in rural Aleppo in an attempt to control the region after regular Syrian army forces suffered heavy losses over the past few months,” the British-based activist group reported.
It said three people had died, including two rebels.
The Observatory said many families had been displaced and water, electricity and medical supplies were running short.
DANGER AROUND ALEPPO
Aleppo, Syria’s second largest city and commercial hub, has been largely spared of the violence. But the outskirts of the city and the wider province have seen rebels gaining territory since the uprising began 16 months ago.
Opposition activists say at least 15,000 people have been killed over that time. Assad says the rebels are foreign-backed terrorists who have killed thousands of army and police troops in hit-and-run attacks and roadside bombings.
Residents say rebels have set up checkpoints along roads in the Aleppo region and in some towns the army is confined to barracks.
The Observatory said 93 people, mostly civilians, were killed across Syria on Friday, when protesters took the streets to call for a “people’s liberation war.”
Opposition activists said they feared for the lives of the residents of Khan Sheikhoun after the army seized control of the rebel stronghold in the northern Idlib province on Friday in an assault with helicopter gunships.
On the diplomatic front, China on Saturday joined Russia in rejecting U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s accusation that Beijing and Moscow have hindered efforts to bring about a peaceful resolution of the crisis in Syria.
Any attempt to “slander” China was doomed to fail, it said.
Clinton had urged Assad’s international opponents meeting in Paris on Friday to make Russia and China “pay a price” for helping the authoritarian leader keep power in Damascus.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said Clinton’s comments were “totally unacceptable”.
“Any words and deeds that slander China and sow discord between China and other countries will be in vain,” he said.
Russia and China have repeatedly used veto power at the U.N. Security Council to block international attempts to persuade Assad to leave power to make way for a democratic transition in the pivotal Arab country.
They say they are committed to the peace plan of U.N. envoy Kofi Annan that proposes national dialogue. U.N. peace monitors effectively gave up on their mission last month after just weeks in Syria as it became clear there was no peace to monitor.
News on Friday that one of Assad’s personal friends had defected and was headed for exile in France was hailed by Clinton as proof that members of the Damascus leadership were starting to “vote with their feet” and leave a sinking ship.
Manaf Tlas, a Republican Guard brigadier and son of the longtime defense minister under Assad’s father Hafez, has yet to surface abroad or clearly to throw his lot in with the rebels.
But his desertion, leaked by family friends, was confirmed by the French government, giving a boost to the “Friends of Syria” conference it hosted in Paris.
Western powers and Sunni Muslim Arab rulers opposed to Assad, whose minority Alawite sect – an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam – has dominated Syria’s power structure for decades, agreed to “massively increase” aid to the Syrian opposition.
Deadlock in global diplomacy has left the Western powers trying to give an impression of momentum growing against Assad, holding a series of meetings, trumpeting defections and piling psychological pressure on Assad’s ruling elite.
Tlas and his father Mustafa, who friends said left for Paris some months ago claiming medical problems, were rare faces from Syria’s Sunni majority in the Alawite-led ruling clique. Their flight may show Assad is losing support among wealthier Sunnis.
It also suggests the Tlas clan, whatever moral scruples friends say were their prime motive for abandoning their friend and patron, has seen the writing on the wall for Assad’s rule.
Thousands of families have fled their homes in the past two weeks due to heavy fighting between government forces and rebels and many face food shortages, the United Nations said on Friday.
Late on Friday, about 300 refugees, including about 30 military personnel, crossed into Turkey at the border at Bukulmez in Hatay province, according to a Reuters cameraman.
(Additional reporting by Roula Naeimeh and Nazih Siddiq; writing by Douglas Hamilton)