SERHANIYEH, Lebanon: Syria is planting landmines along parts of the country's border with Lebanon as refugees stream out of the country to escape the crackdown on anti-government protests, officials and witnesses said Tuesday.
The exodus to neighboring Lebanon and Turkey has proven a deep embarrassment for increasingly besieged President Bashar Assad, who warned over the weekend that the Middle East will burn if foreign powers try to intervene in his country's conflict.
A Syrian official familiar with government strategy claimed the mines are meant to prevent arms smuggling into Syria. The official spoke to The Associated Press on condition that his name not be published because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Witnesses on the Lebanese side of the border also told the AP they have seen Syrian soldiers planting the mines in recent days in their territory.
"Syria has undertaken many measures to control the borders, including planting mines," said the Syrian official.
Three residents of the Lebanese border village of Serhaniyeh showed an AP reporter a long sand dune barrier along the frontier where they said Syrian troops laid mines. Ahmed Diab, 26, said several trucks carrying about a 100 soldiers arrived in the area on Thursday and spent the entire day planting mines on the side of the barriers that is toward Lebanon.
"Since they planted the mines, no one dares to go to the border line," said Diab, as he sat on his motorcycle near his home that overlooks parts of the Syrian province of Homs. Homs has seen some of the worst violence of the uprising.
Many Syrians cross the border into Lebanon regularly, some of them to flee the violence in their country. And the mines are the latest in a number of signs that Syria is working to prevent Lebanon from becoming a safe haven for the Syrian opposition.
There have been at least three cases this year of Syrian dissidents being snatched off the streets in Lebanon and spirited back across the border, Lebanese police say. The abductions have raised alarm among some in Lebanon that members of the country's security forces are helping Assad's regime in its crackdown on anti-government protesters, effectively extending it into Lebanon.
A senior Lebanese security official confirmed that Syrian troops are planting mines on the Syrian side of the border, but said Beirut will not interfere with actions on Syrian territory.
"What concerns us are violations of Lebanese territories and Syrian troops pursuits of people on the Lebanese side of the border," the official said on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
Syria and Lebanon share a 230-mile (365-kilometer) long border, although it appears the landmines have been planted in several small areas in Homs province - where some of the worst violence of the uprising has occurred - and Irsal in the Baalbek region, which borders Homs and Damascus countryside.