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Syrian Conflict Crosses Border Into Lebanon


We're going to hear now how the deadly violence in Syria is beginning to spill over its border into Lebanon. That turn of events comes as a peace plan in Syria is faltering badly. A weekend massacre in a Syrian village left over a hundred people dead, many of them children.

Today, the U.N.'s envoy to Syria, Kofi Annan, was in the capital, Damascus. He met with President Bashar al-Assad, calling on him to take bold steps to halt the violence. Which brings us to Lebanon and how Syria's problems are playing out there. NPR's Kelly McEvers reports.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: The uprising in Syria started last year because a minority family has ruled Syria for 40 years. That family is Alawite, which is an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Those who oppose it are mainly Sunni. Lebanon, where Sunnis and Shiites and Christians are in government together, is divided along these same lines. Sunnis by and large support the Syrian uprising, while Shiites - some loyal to the Shiite group, Hezbollah - mostly support the Syrian government. Even before the Syrian uprising, the two groups had their differences in Lebanon, sometimes violent ones.

So for many months, Lebanon tried to remain neutral on the Syrian uprising. Then a Lebanese Islamist, who was known to help Syrian refugees, was lured to the office of a man he thought would provide some humanitarian aid. Instead, it was a sting, set up by a branch of the Lebanese intelligence service. The man was arrested.

The problem was, the man was a Sunni, but the intelligence service that caught him is known to be run by Shiites. Soon, Sunnis and Alawites were shooting each other in the Lebanese city of Tripoli.


MCEVERS: Days of fighting left at least 10 dead and many more wounded. The troubles didn't stop there. A few days later, a prominent Sunni sheikh, who also was known to help Syrian refugees, was shot and killed along with his companion by Lebanese soldiers at a checkpoint. Sunnis here in Lebanon's capital, Beirut, started burning tires to block the roads, and in one neighborhood, shooting at Shiites - at least two people were killed.

The next day, the sheikh's funeral swelled with masked Sunni men carrying flags with Islamist messages.


MCEVERS: So we're walking along here with the funeral procession for the sheikh who was killed. As you can hear, there's a lot of gunfire. Most of it is celebratory, we're told...


MCEVERS: ...acknowledging that the death and hailing the sheikh as a martyr. At the moment there's no fighting. But there are a lot of young men walking around with guns. They are Sunni militants who are very angry about the killing of the sheikh by the Lebanese army.

While the circumstances of the sheikh's killing remain unclear, the message of the funeral was clear: We are here, we are armed, and we are angry. Angry, they said, at army officers they believed were acting on orders from the Shiites in Hezbollah or Alawites in the Syrian regime.

Just after we left the funeral, protesters blocked the roads to keep the army out. The next day, in a clear move to tamp down the violence, the man whose detention started the first wave of fighting was released on about $300 bail.


MCEVERS: Sunni residents of Tripoli celebrated and the country seemed to breathe a sigh of relief, until a busload of Lebanese Shiites was captured inside Syria. The group reportedly was returning home from a religious pilgrimage in Iran. The kidnappers sent the women and children back home, but the men remain in custody.

So again, Lebanon is on a kind of high alert.

Paul Salem heads the Carnegie Center for Middle East Peace here in Beirut. He says it's important to remember that this kind of sectarian tension is not new for Lebanon, which saw its own long drawn-out sectarian war from 1975 to 1990.

PAUL SALEM: Certainly we've had a bout of high fever. Whether this is an immunizing bout, an inoculation from further high fevers...

MCEVERS: That remains to be seen. Salem says there are positive signs that the current fever is being contained. Politicians on all sides in Lebanon are encouraging their followers to remain calm. And so far, it's working. But he says, as the Syrian conflict worsens the question is how long that calm can hold in Syria's neighbors.

Kelly McEvers NPR News Beirut

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kelly McEvers is a two-time Peabody Award-winning journalist and former host of NPR's flagship newsmagazine, All Things Considered. She spent much of her career as an international correspondent, reporting from Asia, the former Soviet Union, and the Middle East. She is the creator and host of the acclaimed Embedded podcast, a documentary show that goes to hard places to make sense of the news. She began her career as a newspaper reporter in Chicago.