Ex-Lebanon minister, Syria general tied to plot

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BEIRUT -- A Lebanese military court investigative judge on Wednesday charged a former government information minister and a high-ranking Syrian military accomplice in a conspiracy to kill Lebanese political and religious leaders and foment sectarian strife, recommending the death penalty for both.

The announcement about the defendants, Michel Samaha, the former minister, and Brig. Gen. Ali Mamlouk, a senior security official, came amid increased sectarian tensions in Lebanon that are directly tied to the nearly 2-year-old conflict in neighboring Syria, which occupied Lebanon for nearly three decades until 2005 and still deeply polarizes Lebanese politics.

Lebanese officials have said explosives were found in a car belonging to Mr. Samaha, who was arrested Aug. 9. Gen. Mamlouk, who has not been arrested, was accused of plotting with Mr. Samaha to transport the explosives into the country.

Lebanon's National News Agency, which reported the charges made by investigative Judge Riad Abou Ghayda, also said he had issued a warrant to determine the full identity of a third defendant, a Syrian who was identified only as Col. Adnan. His role in the suspected conspiracy was not made clear.

It also was unclear how long a trial would last, or whether the judge's recommendations of punishment would be followed if the defendants were found guilty. But the Lebanese government's handling of the politically sensitive case carries its own risks of aggravating sectarian tensions in this country.

On Tuesday, a group claiming to represent a faction of Syrian rebels threatened to lob mortar rounds into Lebanon to attack Hezbollah, the Shiite militia that is also Lebanon's most powerful political party, in retaliation for what rebels say is a Hezbollah military campaign against Syrian rebels. The statement warned Lebanese citizens, especially in the Shiite, pro-Hezbollah border town of Hermel, to stay away from Hezbollah positions that it said were shelling the rebels across the border.

A cross-border skirmish between Hezbollah and Syrian rebels could be a dangerous escalation in Lebanon, which has struggled to stay out of the conflict in Syria.

Representatives of the main group of rebel fighters, the Free Syrian Army, issued conflicting statements, with one saying the threat was a provocation fabricated by Hezbollah, and another confirming it and giving Hezbollah 48 hours to end its attacks or face retaliation.

Hezbollah is closely allied to the Syrian government, while its Sunni rivals in Lebanon largely support the majority Sunni rebels. Rebels say Hezbollah has stepped up its military activity inside Syria, taking over numerous villages near the border. Hezbollah says its fighters have been active only in Syrian villages where Lebanese citizens live and are defending themselves.

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