- Associated Press - Sunday, May 26, 2013

BEIRUT (AP) — A pair of rockets slammed into a car dealership and a residential building in strongholds of Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant group in Beirut on Sunday, wounding four people in a new sign that Syria’s civil war is increasingly rattling its fragile neighbor.

Lebanon’s sectarian divide mirrors that of Syria, and Lebanese armed factions increasingly have taken sides in the fighting next door. There was no claim of responsibility for Sunday’s rocket attacks, but they struck just hours after Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah vowed to propel Syrian President Bashar Assad to victory.


SEE ALSO: Syria agrees ‘in principle’ to attend peace talks


In Baghdad, Syria’s foreign minister offered the first direct confirmation that the Assad regime is willing to take part in talks aimed at ending the Syrian conflict. A U.N.-sponsored conference, envisioned for next month in Geneva, is to bring together representatives of the Assad regime and the Syrian opposition for talks on a political transition.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said Sunday the government is willing “in principle” to participate in the conference. He added that such talks present a “good opportunity for a political solution for the crisis in Syria,” but he did not say under what terms Mr. Assad would dispatch representatives.


The date, agenda and list of participants for the conference remain unclear, and wide gaps remain about its objectives.

Syrian opposition leaders have said that they are willing to attend the Geneva talks but that Mr. Assad’s departure from power must top the agenda. Mr. Assad said this month that his future won’t be determined by international talks and that he will only step down after elections are held.

The foreign minister’s statement puts more pressure on Syria’s fractured political opposition to signal acceptance as well. The main bloc, the Syrian National Coalition, was meeting in Istanbul for the fourth day Sunday to come up with a unified position on the proposed peace talks, elect new leaders and expand membership.

Louay Safi, a senior member of the coalition, said participants were bogged down in talks about the expansion and won’t be able to issue a formal statement on the Geneva talks until membership issues are settled.

The opposition’s Western and Arab allies remain skeptical about the Syrian regime’s commitment to negotiations. They have warned Mr. Assad that they will step up aid to Syrian rebels if the regime does not negotiate in good faith — though U.S. reluctance to arm the rebels may have taken the bite out of such threats.

Meanwhile, fighting has continued unabated inside Syria.

For the past week, regime troops and its Hezbollah allies have waged an offensive against the strategic rebel-held town of Qusair in western Syria. They have gained ground amid heavy shelling, but rebels have held some positions.

The Qusair battle has laid bare Hezbollah‘s growing role in the Syrian conflict. The Shiite militant group, which has been fighting alongside Mr. Assad’s troops, initially tried to play down its involvement but no longer could do so after dozens of its fighters were killed in Qusair and buried in large funerals in Lebanon.

On Saturday, Hezbollah‘s leader firmly linked his militia’s fate to the survival of the Syrian regime, raising the stakes not just in Syria, but also in Hezbollah‘s relations with rival groups in Lebanon.

“We will continue this road until the end, we will take the responsibility, and we will make all the sacrifices,” he said in a televised speech. “We will be victorious.”

Hours after the speech, two rockets struck neighborhoods in south Beirut, a rare occurrence even in a country used to sectarian strife. Street fighting between rival Lebanese groups has been relatively common since the end of the country’s 15-year civil war in 1990, but rocket or artillery attacks on Beirut neighborhoods are unusual.

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