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Lebanese dispute 'jihadist' label

| Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2012, 7:42 p.m.

TRIPOLI — The families of Lebanese men killed in Syria last week say their relatives were more interested in nice clothes and vacations than fighting a civil war. Yet Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime branded them foreign jihadists — and their deaths set off three days of new spillover violence.

The Syrian civil war continued on Wednesday as gunman fought in the streets of the Lebanese city of Tripoli. The fighting has killed six people and wounded nearly 60 since Monday, security officials said.

The bloodshed is a sign of just how vulnerable Lebanon is to getting sucked into the Syrian crisis. The countries share a porous border and a complex web of political and sectarian ties.

Among the 17 Lebanese men who turned up dead in Syria last week were Bilal al-Ghoul and his childhood friend, Malek Haj Deeb, both 20. Malek's older brother, Jihad, said the two men sympathized with the rebellion, but they were not fighters.

“Malek used to see the videos of dead Syrians and cry,” Jihad Haj Deeb told The Associated Press in Tripoli, as gunfire and explosions echoed near his home in the poor neighborhood of Mankoubeen. “He used to say, ‘May Bashar fall soon, God willing.' ” A giant poster hung in the entrance of the home, with photos of three of those killed in Syria and a sign that read: “Our dead are in heaven, and yours are in hell.”

Haj Deeb and Bilal al-Ghoul's older brother, Omar, said the men must have been kidnapped and handed over to Syrian authorities by a pro-Syrian Lebanese group. They said their brothers were not members of any political or Islamic group but were observant Muslims.

“My brother doesn't know how to hold a rifle,” Haj Deeb said.

The Lebanese men killed in Syria were Sunni Muslims, like the majority of rebels trying to overthrow Assad's regime. Assad and much of his inner circle belong to the Alawite sect, which is an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

In Brussels, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reiterated concerns that “an increasingly desperate Assad regime might turn to chemical weapons” or lose control of them to militant groups.

She said NATO's decision on Tuesday to send Patriot missiles to Turkey's southern border with Syria sends a message that Ankara is backed by its allies. The missiles are intended only for defensive purposes, she said.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu was quoted on Wednesday in a Turkish newspaper as saying that Syria has about 700 missiles, some of them long-range.

As Assad's regime wobbles, there are fears the crisis will keep spiraling outside its borders. Fighting has spilled over into Turkey, Jordan and Israel since the uprising began more than 20 months ago, but Lebanon is particularly susceptible.

Syria has powerful allies there, including the Iran-backed Hezbollah.

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