- Associated Press - Tuesday, November 1, 2011

SERHANIYEH, LebanonSyria is planting land mines along parts of the country’s border with Lebanon as refugees stream out of the country to escape the crackdown on anti-government protests, officials and witnesses said Tuesday.

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 brought for treatment. He asked that his name not be published out of fear of repercussions by authorities.

The Syrian exodus to neighboring Lebanon and Turkey has proved a deep embarrassment for increasingly besieged President Bashar Assad, who warned over the weekend that the Middle East will burn if foreign powers try to intervene in his country’s conflict.

A Syrian official familiar with government strategy claimed the anti-personnel mines are meant to prevent arms smuggling into Syria. The official spoke to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

Witnesses on the Lebanese side of the border also told the AP they have seen Syrian soldiers planting the mines in recent days in two parts of Syrian territory: in the restive province of Homs and across from Lebanon’s eastern Baalbek region.

Syria has undertaken many measures to control the borders, including planting mines,” the Syrian official said.

More than 5,000 Syrians have fled to Lebanon since the crisis began in March.

The land mines are the latest sign of Syria’s increasing isolation and just how deeply shaken the Assad regime has become since the uprising began nearly eight months ago.

Mr. Assad, a 46-year-old eye doctor who trained in Britain, still has a firm grip on power, although the cost has been mighty: The U.N. says about 3,000 people have been killed by security forces.

Syria is a regional nexus, bordering five countries with which it shares religious and ethnic minorities and, in Israel’s case, a fragile truce. Its web of alliances extends to Lebanon’s powerful Hezbollah movement and Iran’s Shiite theocracy.

Turkey, until recently an ally, has opened its borders to anti-Assad activists and breakaway military rebels.

Three residents of the Lebanese border village of Serhaniyeh showed an AP reporter a long sand-dune barrier along the frontier where they said Syrian troops laid mines.

Ahmed Diab, 26, said several trucks carrying about 100 soldiers arrived in the area on Thursday and spent the entire day planting mines on the side of the barriers that is toward Lebanon.

“Since they planted the mines, no one dares to go to the border line,” said Mr. Diab, as he sat on his motorcycle near his home, which overlooks parts of the Syrian province of Homs.

Homs has seen some of the worst violence of the uprising.

Many Syrians regularly cross the border into Lebanon, some of them to flee the violence in their country. The mines are the latest in a number of signs that Syria is working to prevent Lebanon from becoming a safe haven for the Syrian opposition.

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 the Assad regime in its crackdown on anti-government protesters, effectively extending it into Lebanon.

Syria had direct control over Lebanon for nearly 30 years before it pulled 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 in a statement that Syrian soldiers briefly crossed the border 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.

“What concerns us are violations of Lebanese territory and Syrian troops’ pursuit of people on the Lebanese side of the border,” the official said on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

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