BEIRUT - Gunmen killed three Lebanese soldiers in a drive-by shooting on a government checkpoint near the Syrian border Tuesday, Lebanon's military said, escalating tensions in a country deeply divided by the civil war next door and fearful of being engulfed by the conflict.
Sectarian clashes tied to Syria's war have broken out with increasing regularity in Lebanon, while rockets fired from across the frontier have struck Lebanese border villages with growing frequency. That violence, coupled with the Hezbollah militant group's direct intervention in the Syrian conflict has deeply shaken Lebanon, and threatened to throw off the country's precarious sectarian balance.
The border shooting took place before dawn Tuesday when gunmen opened fire from a moving car on a checkpoint near the predominantly Sunni town of Arsal, nestled in the hills about 12 kilometres (seven miles) from the Syrian border, the military said in a statement. Government troops have launched a search for the assailants.
The shooting is "part of a series of terrorist and criminal acts that seek to sow civil strife in Lebanon and attack soldiers working hard to prevent that," Lebanese President Michel Suleiman said.
To the north of Arsal, two rockets fired from Syria struck the Lebanese town of Hermel, wounding several people, Lebanese security officials said on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
Hermel is located just across the border from the embattled Syrian town of Qusair, where gunmen from the Lebanese Shiite militant Hezbollah group have been fighting alongside Syrian government troops against rebels defending the strategic town. Hezbollah has lost nearly 80 fighters in the offensive, according to activists.
Hezbollah has not said publicly how many of its fighters have been killed, but the group has held a series of funerals in recent days for its dead.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported sporadic clashes and some shelling in Qusair on Tuesday, although the fighting was much lighter than in previous days.
Syria's state-run news agency said a senior government official was killed in Qusair. Terrorists were responsible for the death of Ahmed al-Shaar, the chairman of the National Reconciliation Committee, the agency said.
Syrian officials refer to rebels as terrorists whose aims to destroy Syria are backed by the West and their Gulf Arab allies.
Hezbollah's growing role in the fighting has exacerbated tensions in Lebanon itself. The northern port city of Tripoli has been engulfed by clashes for more than a week, with factions backing opposing sides in the Syrian conflict fighting gunbattles in the streets that have left at least 28 people dead.
The bloodshed has raised fears that the Syrian violence spilling over into Lebanon will reignite the sectarian bloodshed that devastated the country in its own 15-year civil war that ended in 1990.
Two rockets hit Hezbollah's strongholds in south Beirut on Sunday, wounding four people. The rocket attacks came a day after Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah pledged to lift Assad to victory.
The commander of the main Western-backed umbrella group of Syrian rebels said Tuesday that Hezbollah has sent thousands of fighters to Syria and is emerging as the main threat to his Free Syrian Army. He called for urgent international action to stop the influx of Hezbollah fighters, warning that if no action is taken, his rebels might ignore his standing order and start targeting the Shiite militant group's bases in Lebanon.
"If this kind of behaviour of Hezbollah continues, I can't ... control the units of the FSA anymore. They will start to target the bases of Hezbollah inside Lebanon territory," he told The Associated Press by phone from Syria.
Idris, however, said he has no information on the soldiers killed in Arsal Tuesday. "I don't accept this kind of action against the army of Lebanon," he said.
Idris added that unless the rebels receive weapons quickly, they might not be able to hold Qusair.
Late Monday, the European Union decided not to extend an arms embargo on Syria. The move enables member states to send weapons to help Syria's outgunned rebels and step up the pressure on the government of President Bashar Assad to seek a negotiated settlement to the 26-month-old conflict.
EU diplomats said Britain and France were the only two member states considering such deliveries. Still, none of the block's 27 members has any immediate plans to send arms to the rebels, and it is likely that many will wait until prospective "Geneva II" talks next month, part of a joint U.S.-Russia initiative to end the crisis.
The conflict began in March 2011 as peaceful protests against Assad, then turned into a civil war after some opposition supporters took up arms to fight a brutal government crackdown on dissent. More than 70,000 people have been killed and more than five million Syrians fled their homes, seeking shelter in neighbouring countries or in other parts of Syria.
Associated Press writers Karin Laub in Beirut, Onur Cakir in Istanbul and Albert Aji in Damascus contributed to this report.