BEIRUT, Lebanon — Eighteen rockets and mortar rounds from Syria were fired into Lebanon on Saturday, the largest cross-border salvo to hit a Hezbollah stronghold since Syrian rebels threatened to retaliate for the Lebanese militant group's armed support of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Sixteen rockets and mortar rounds hit the Baalbek region early Saturday, igniting fires in fields but causing no casualties. Lebanese security officials, speaking to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity in line with regulations, said the villages of Yanta, Brital and Saraeen were among the areas struck. Lebanon's National News Agency said two more rockets hit the Baalbek area on Saturday evening.
Also on Saturday, gunmen opened fire on a Shiite shrine in Baalbek in an attack that could worsen frictions between Lebanon's Shiites and Sunnis. The shrine of Sayida Khawla, a great granddaughter of the prophet Mohammed, was attacked shortly after midnight, a security official said.
The violence is the latest sign that Syria's civil war is increasingly destabilizing Lebanon. On Friday, the Lebanese parliament put off general elections, originally scheduled for June, by 17 months, blaming a deteriorating security situation in the country.
In Qatar, an influential Sunni Muslim cleric whose TV show is watched by millions across the region fanned the sectarian flames ignited by the Syria conflict and urged Sunnis everywhere to join the fight against Assad.
"I call on Muslims everywhere to help their brothers be victorious," Yusuf al-Qaradawi said in his Friday sermon in the Qatari capital of Doha. "If I had the ability I would go and fight with them."
He denounced Assad's Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, as "more infidel than Christians and Jews." He called Hezbollah, a militant group of Shiite Muslims, "the party of the devil."
He said there is no more common ground between Shiites and Sunnis, alleging that Shiite Iran — a longtime Syria ally that has supplied the regime with cash and weapons — is trying to "devour" Sunnis.
The Syrian conflict, now in its third year, has taken on dark sectarian overtones. It has escalated from a local uprising into a civil war and is now increasingly shifting into a proxy war.
Predominantly Sunni rebels backed by Sunni states Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey are fighting against a regime that relies on support from Alawites, Shiites and Christians at home, and is aided by Iran and Hezbollah. The Syria conflict is also part of a wider battle between Saudi Arabia and Iran for regional influence.
Sunni fighters from Iraq and Lebanon have crossed into Syria to help those fighting Assad, while Shiites from Iraq have joined the battle on the regime's side.
Sectarian tensions rose sharply when Hezbollah stepped up its involvement in the war in mid May by joining a regime offensive against the rebel-held Syrian town of Qusair, about 6 miles from Lebanon. The town has since become one of the war's major military and political flash points, with international concern growing over civilians believed to be trapped there.
On Saturday, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nation's two top officials dealing with human rights and humanitarian issues said they were alarmed by reports that thousands of civilians are trapped in Qusair and that hundreds of wounded people are in urgent need of medical care.
The U.N. officials called for a cease-fire to allow the wounded to be evacuated. They said more than 10,000 people have fled to two nearby towns and need food, bedding, water and medical care.
The Red Cross said it has requested access to Qusair and is prepared to enter the city immediately to help the civilians there.