Archive for June 23, 2013


June 21, 2013

BERLIN (AP) — A diplomatic dispute over Turkey’s EU membership bid and a crackdown on demonstrations in the country intensified Friday as Germany summoned the Turkish ambassador over comments made by a minister about Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Merkel on Monday criticized the crackdown by security forces as “much too strong.” The chancellor also has long been skeptical of Turkey’s ambitions to join the European Union; her coalition government supports continuing membership talks, but this week blocked a decision to move forward the negotiations.

Turkey’s minister in charge of EU affairs, Egemen Bagis, suggested on Thursday that Merkel was picking on Turkey for political gain as she attempts to win a third term in September elections. Bagis said that if Merkel is looking for “internal political material,” then “this should not be Turkey.” He also pointed to the election defeat last year of then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy, a fellow opponent of Turkey’s EU membership.

“If Mrs. Merkel follows and reviews what happened to Sarkozy, who previously tried to use (Turkey) as political material, she will see that the fate of those who mess around with Turkey is not all that good,” said Bagis, who is Turkey’s chief EU negotiator.

German Foreign Ministry spokesman Andreas Peschke told reporters that ambassador Huseyin Avni Karslioglu was summoned to the ministry Friday. He would say only that the reason was comments by a Turkish official regarding Germany and the future of the EU membership talks, adding: “These are comments that met with incomprehension — this is not in order.”

In an apparent tit-for-tat action, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Germany’s top diplomat was being summoned, because the government wanted to express its “discomfort” with what he called “certain statements that have disturbed Turkey.” Davutoglu, who spoke to Turkish state media during a visit to Ukraine, did not specify what statements he meant.

Bagis said Friday he hoped that Germany “steps back from (the) serious mistake” of blocking progress in Turkey’s membership talks. Last month, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said he was hopeful of opening negotiations on another chapter in the membership talks before the end of June. But on Thursday, Germany and the Netherlands blocked a decision to do so.

That chapter concerns regional policies, not Turkey’s protests. Asked whether the decision to block its opening was linked to the Turkish crackdown, Peschke said it was down to “open technical questions” on which he wouldn’t elaborate.

However, he added that “of course, as always in life, everything is linked to everything else.” Human rights groups have said the protests in Turkey have left more than 5,000 people injured and more than 3,000 were detained and then released.

The demonstrations were sparked by a police crackdown on environmental activists in Istanbul May 31, but protesters also criticized what some regard as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s authoritarian style of leadership.

Merkel also said Monday that “what is happening at the moment in Turkey does not correspond to our idea of the freedom to protest and the freedom of speech.” NATO member Turkey began EU accession negotiations in 2005, but has made little progress, in part reflecting unease among some in Europe to admitting a populous Muslim nation.

Turkey’s entry talks cover 35 different areas, or chapters. Only 13 have been opened, and several areas have been frozen over Turkey’s refusal to allow ships and planes from Cyprus, an EU member, to enter its ports and airspace.

Germany itself is a potential obstacle to Turkish EU membership given that Merkel and her conservative party have long advocated a lesser, vaguely defined “privileged partnership,” though Westerwelle’s Free Democrats — her junior coalition partners— are less skeptical.

A spokesman for Merkel stressed that Germany’s support for continuing membership talks remains unchanged. “Neither the chancellor nor the government are in any way questioning the accession process,” Georg Streiter said. “It’s not about whether, only about how the accession process is continued.”

Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, contributed to this report.

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June 23, 2013

TIRANA, Albania (AP) — An Albanian political candidate was shot and a supporter of a rival party killed in an exchange of gunfire near a polling station, police said Sunday, as the country held crucial elections already marred by a dispute that could leave the outcome up in the air.

Both conservative Prime Minister Sali Berisha and his close rival, Socialist leader Edi Rama, have hopes for eventual entry to the European Union, and the election is seen as a test of whether the country can run a fair and safe vote. An EU diplomat condemned the violence.

There were few immediate details, but a police spokesman said that Gjon Gjoni, 53, died after being shot in an exchange of fire with Mhill Fufi, 49, a candidate for Berisha’s governing Democratic Party. An opposition party leader identified Gjoni as a supporter.

Another man, Kastriot Fufi, was also injured. It was not immediately clear if he and the candidate were related. The shooting in the city of Lac started with an argument, said police spokesman Tefik Sulejmani, who gave few other details.

Once one of the world’s hardest-line communist countries, the impoverished country has had a rocky road to democracy, plagued by corruption and elections marred by violence and vote-rigging. The month-long contest had been relatively calm until election day, though there had been reports of civil servants and even school children being pressured to attend pro-government rallies.

Ilir Meta, the leader of the Socialist Movement for Integration said the dead man was a supporter and directly blamed police and “criminal elements” of the ruling Democrats of exerting pressure at polling stations.

“Sali Berisha is not Albania’s premier any more. He cannot leave power without shedding blood,” said Meta. The EU’s top diplomat in Albania took a hard stand on the violence. “I want to say something very clear, very firm. Among the international and European standards for elections, there is the refusal of violence,” said Ettore Sequi, the EU ambassador to Tirana.

Some 3.3 million registered voters are eligible to cast their ballots in the eighth national polls since the fall of communism in 1990. The country’s president called for unity. “Peace, calm, citizens’ life is important. I appeal for calm and maturity because, true we vote for different parties, but we are one nation,” Bujar Nishani said.

Because of a battle over the country’s election commission, it is uncertain when results will be announced, though the law mandates they be revealed no later than three days after the vote. Rama postponed voting to head to Lac, about 37 miles (60 kilometers) northwest of the capital Tirana.

Berisha invited all Albanians to take part in the vote and turn Sunday “into a day of festivities and good understanding.” “I assure you that your vote will be fully respected,” Berisha told reporters after casting his ballot.

The premier declined to comment on the killing, saying he needed more information first. Following aggressive campaigns by both Berisha’s Democrats and the Socialists, streets in the capital of Tirana were uncommonly empty, but had long queues of people at polling stations.

The country’s seven-member election commission, which prepares and holds votes, is down by three people, meaning it may be unable to certify the election. If the election is not certified, it means Parliament cannot be convened and no government formed.

In April, one of Berisha’s main government allies withdrew from the coalition to join forces with the opposition. He was then ousted and replaced at the election commission by Berisha’s Democrats. That move drew sharp criticism from the United States and the EU, who said it would erode people’s confidence in the electoral process.

Three members affiliated with the opposition withdrew in protest, leaving the commission short of the people necessary for 5-2 approval. They have said they would consider returning to the commission to certify the election once they see the results.

Albania joined NATO in 2009 but has failed to gain candidate status from the EU, which is pressing for broader democratic reforms and an improved election record. Some 400 international observers and about 8,000 local ones are monitoring the voting.

June 22, 2013

TIRANA, Albania (AP) — Albania’s president on Saturday warned voters to remember the country’s “ties to the world” during parliamentary elections considered a crucial test of the impoverished nation’s ability to hold fair elections.

Conservative Prime Minister Sali Berisha is seeking a third term but faces a strong challenge from Socialist leader Edi Rama in Sunday’s vote. Both have ambitions of closer ties and eventual membership in the European Union, which is pressing for broad reforms and an improved election record in a country once among the most isolated in the world.

As required by law, political parties ceased their one-month campaign the day before the vote. Though the month-long election contest has been relatively calm — unlike past elections that were frequently marred by violence — the West is concerned that the vote won’t be fair.

The campaign season has been marked by a continuing dispute over the country’s election commission after the ruling Democrats replaced a member and the opposition pulled its members out in response. That means the commission won’t be able to certify election results, potentially leaving the outcome of the vote in doubt.

There have also been reports of civil servants and even school children being pressured to attend pro-government rallies. President Bujar Nishani urged voters to have “Albania and its future” uppermost in their minds.

“(We) should properly consider the importance tomorrow’s vote has for our ties with the world, with which our freedom, prosperity, fate of the present and the future are closely linked.” Some 3.3 million eligible voters will choose among more than 6,900 candidates from 66 political parties who run for 140 parliamentary seats. Some 400 international observers and more than 8,000 local ones will monitor the polls.

It is uncertain when results will be announced.

June 21, 2013

TIRANA, Albania (AP) — Political parties in Albania rallied supporters on their final day of campaigning for Sunday’s general elections, which are considered a test for the Balkan country to shed its history of troubled polls as it seeks closer ties with and eventual membership in the European Union.

Conservative Prime Minister Sali Berisha, 68, is seeking a third term and spoke in front of thousands of backers at his Democratic Party’s main election rally Friday in the capital Tirana. He is facing a strong challenge from 48-year-old Socialist Edi Rama, whose campaign has concentrated on the enduring levels of poverty in the country, which has 3.3 million registered voters.

Rama is leading in most opinion polls, though surveys are not generally considered reliable in Albania. Both he and Berisha have run aggressive campaigns, with negative TV ads and daily party rallies around the country — leaving its cities and towns littered with blue Democrat and purple Socialist flags and pamphlets.

Rama’s Socialists even paid for television ads in neighboring Greece, which has a large Albanian immigrant community. Once one of the world’s hardest-line Communist countries, Albania joined NATO in 2009 but has failed to gain candidate status from the European Union, which is pressing for broader democratic reforms and an improved election record.

“The parliamentary elections in Albania on 23 June represent a crucial test for the country’s democratic institutions and its progress toward the European Union,” Catherine Ashton, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs, and Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule said in a recent statement.

Berisha called on his countrymen to get on “the road toward European Albania. “The road toward Europe is the enlightened future for each Albanian. Let’s get together to take the candidate status. With major reforms and efforts during this year we shall make our utmost to launch (membership) negotiations,” Berisha said.

The monthlong election contest has been relatively calm, unlike past elections that were frequently marred by violence. However, there have been reports of civil servants and even school children being pressured to attend pro-government rallies.

The country heads to the polls amid a continuing dispute over the country’s election commission that remains dominated by Berisha allies despite the fracturing of his center-right coalition in mid-April. Berisha’s failure to resolve the dispute over the Central Election Commission drew sharp criticism from the United States and EU.

Rama held his main campaign rally Thursday, addressing thousands of supporters in Tirana’s central Mother Teresa Square. He accused Berisha of running the country with a corrupt elite who had “ruined the economy, society, democracy, and Albanians’ European dream.”

On Friday, Rama took part at a big rally in northern Shkodra city and then by helicopter flew to southern Vlora city, where the Socialists were holding their last rallies at the same time. The Vienna, Austria-based Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has sent a team of election monitors to Albania.

21 June 2013

(TIRANA) – Albanians go to the polls on Sunday for a crucial vote that could determine whether one of Europe’s poorest country has a chance of joining the European Union in the foreseeable future.

Having failed to deliver clean elections since the fall of communism two decades ago, Albania desperately needs to prove that it is able to hold fair polls that meet international standards if it is to have a shot at joining the bloc.

But even in the run-up to the elections, accusations of vote-buying and voter roll irregularities are already flying, sparking fears of a repeat of the 2009 polls which descended into a political crisis.

And international observers are warning that democratic elections are compromised as the agency tasked with certifying the vote is paralyzed by a dispute.

Brussels, which has twice rejected Tirana’s EU membership application, said the vote “represents a crucial test for the country’s democratic institutions and its progress towards the European Union”.

“It is the joint responsibility of all Albanian political leaders… to create conditions for election results to be accepted by all,” EU Foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuelle said in a joint statement ahead of the vote.

Brussels would “watch everything very closely,” Ettore Sequi, head of the EU mission in Tirana, told AFP.

Since the collapse of Enver Hoxha’s communist regime in 1990, polls in the country have been marred by violence and allegations of vote-fixing.

The last general elections in 2009 ended up with a dispute between Prime Minister Sali Berisha’s ruling center-right Democrats and the center-left Socialists led by Edi Rama.

The opposition boycotted parliament for months, crippling legislative progress in the country.

And once again, as Albania’s 3.2 million voters gear up to pick lawmakers for the 140-seat assembly, the electoral system appears to be struggling to meet international standards.

It emerged that the Central Electoral Commission — the agency tasked with certifying the vote — would be unable to carry out its mission because it has lost three members over a dispute.

US ambassador Alexander Arvizu warned that: “In order to have a good election, you need a functioning commission, not the one based on a charade.”

The Council of Europe said “democratic elections are compromised as the commission would not be seen by Albanians as an impartial body.”

Opposition leader Rama also alleges irregularities in the voters’ register and attempts by the ruling Democrats to buy voters.

“I strongly hope that peoples’ will would not be manipulated… but these elections are not like ones that a NATO or EU member country should have,” Rama said.

Berisha — who is seeking his third term as prime minister — dismissed Rama’s claims as an “opposition’s attempt to justify in advance its next electoral defeat”.

The prime minister’s Democrats have pledged new investments while accelerating Albania’s path towards the EU.

Berisha has also promised a six percent hike in wages and pensions to come into effect after the election.

Berisha, 69, said he wants “another four years, the most ambitious in my life, (in order) to realize the dream of Albania joining EU.”

Voters such as 37-year old teacher Eduart Bimi, are hoping that the electoral “promises of more employment and investments” would be kept.

Analysts have predicted a tight race between Berisha’s and Rama’s parties.

Some 3,000 observers will monitor the elections, while first unofficial results are expected by Monday.

Source: EU Business.

Link: http://www.eubusiness.com/news-eu/albania-politics.pbb.

June 22, 2013

ISTANBUL (AP) — Turkish police used water cannon to disperse thousands gathered in Istanbul’s Taksim Square on Saturday to observe a memorial for four people killed during recent anti-government protests. The officers later fired tear gas and rubber bullets, and in some cases beat people with batons, to scatter demonstrators who regrouped in side streets.

The police move came as Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared that foreign-led conspirators he alleges are behind the anti-government movement in his country also are fomenting the recent unrest in Brazil.

The protests in Turkey erupted three weeks ago after riot police brutally cracked down on peaceful environmental activists who opposed plans to develop Gezi Park, which lies next to Taksim. The demonstrations soon turned into expressions of discontent with what critics say is Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian and meddlesome ways.

Erdogan, who took power a decade ago, denies he is authoritarian and, as evidence of his popularity, points to elections in 2011 that returned his party to power with 50 percent of the vote and gave him a third term in office.

On Saturday, demonstrators converged in Taksim, where they laid down carnations in remembrance of at least three protesters and a police officer killed in the rallies. For about two hours, protesters shouted anti-government slogans and demanded that Erdogan resign before police warned them to leave the square.

Some demonstrators tried to give carnations to the security forces watching over the square, shouting: “Police, don’t betray your people.” But after their warnings to disperse were ignored, police pushed back protesters with water cannon, even chasing stragglers down side streets and apparently blocking entrances to the square.

An Associated Press journalist said police drove back protesters into side streets off Taksim — including the main pedestrian shopping street Istiklal — and later fired several rounds of tear gas and rubber bullets to scatter the crowds who refused to disperse. There were no immediate reports of any injuries.

Dogan news agency footage showed two police officers hitting protesters with batons and kicking them as they forced their way through Istiklal street. A few demonstrators threw rocks at a police water cannon, while other protesters tried to calm them down and prevent them from attacking police.

Police in the capital, Ankara, also sprayed tear gas and pressurized water to break up hundreds of protesters who gathered in two neighborhoods, wanting to march to the city’s main square, Dogan reported.

Last week, police had used water cannon as well as tear gas and rubber bullets to clear Taksim and end an occupation of Gezi Park by activists. But the demonstrations had largely subsided in Istanbul in recent days, with many protesters using a new, more passive approach of airing their grievances: standing motionless.

Erdogan has faced fierce international criticism for his government’s crackdown on the protests, but he has defended his administration’s actions as well as the tough police tactics. He also has blamed the protests on unspecified foreign forces, bankers and foreign and Turkish media outlets he says want to harm Turkish interests.

Brazil, meanwhile, has been hit by mass rallies set off this month by a 10-cent hike in bus and subway fares in Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and elsewhere. The protests soon moved beyond that issue to tap into widespread frustration in the South American nation over a range of issues, including high taxes and woeful public services.

During an address to tens of thousands of his backers in the Black Sea coastal city of Samsun, the latest stop in a series of rallies he has called to shore up his political support, Erdogan declared that Brazil was the target of the same conspirators he claims are trying to destabilize Turkey.

“The same game is now being played over Brazil,” Erdogan said. “The symbols are the same, the posters are the same, Twitter, Facebook are the same, the international media is the same. They (the protests) are being led from the same center.

“They are doing their best to achieve in Brazil what they could not achieve in Turkey. It’s the same game, the same trap, the same aim.”

Fraser reported from Ankara, Turkey.

23/06/2013

JERUSALEM (Ma’an) — Mohammad Assaf, the first Palestinian to win the popular Arab Idol TV singing contest, will also become the UN’s first Palestinian goodwill ambassador and the PA’s goodwill Diaspora ambassador.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas made the appointment shortly after Assaf’s win on Saturday evening, according to PA news agency WAFA.

Assaf will have “full diplomatic privileges” in his appointment, Abbas said, describing his winning as a “victory” for the Palestinian people.

Among those there to support Assaf were influential Palestinian businessman Munib al-Masri, PA Culture Minister Anwar Abu Aisheh, Palestinian Ambassador to Lebanon Ashraf Dabour, and Abbas’ son Yasser.

The Arab Idol winner was also named goodwill ambassador for UNRWA, making Assaf the first Palestinian to receive the title.

A diplomatic source in Beirut, where MBC’s Arab Idol is filmed, told Ma’an the agreement was signed days ago to make Assaf the first-ever Palestinian refugee to become a goodwill UN ambassador, becoming the Palestine refugee agency UNRWA’s first-ever regional youth ambassador, the source said Saturday.

“A man with a golden voice is going to take the Palestinians’ voice to the universe. At long last, a fantastic story out of Gaza that will touch the hearts of the world,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity as the ambassadorship had not yet been announced.

“It is a wonderful day for Palestine and for the UN.”

Thousands of Palestinians across the West Bank and Gaza celebrated in the streets late Saturday after the judges announced this year’s winner. They also launched fireworks.

Assaf, a 23-year-old from Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip, has become a household name in Palestine.

In an interview as he prepared for the final stages of the show, he thanked his fans in Palestine for their support.

“If I keep thanking you forever it is never enough,” Assaf said, promising to do his best to keep entertaining his fans.

He also thanked Palestinian leaders for their encouragement, particularly those who came to Beirut to watch him perform in the show.

“Their presence gave me more energy to move on and sing better and represent Palestine in its beautiful image,” he said.

As he succeeded in the final stages of the show, Assaf received phone calls from President Mahmoud Abbas and former Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

The president urged Palestinian communities across the world to vote for Assaf, and instructed the PA Ministry of Foreign Affairs to contact embassies to mobilize support for the Arab Idol star.

Assaf said he would first return to his home in the Gaza Strip after the competition and later perform three shows in West Bank cities.

Source: Ma’an News Agency.

Link: http://www.maannews.net/eng/ViewDetails.aspx?ID=607476.

23/06/2013

BETHLEHEM (Ma’an) — Mohammad Assaf, the first Palestinian to win the popular Arab Idol TV singing contest, will also become the UN’s first Palestinian goodwill ambassador.

A diplomatic source in Beirut, where MBC’s Arab Idol is filmed, told Ma’an the agreement was signed days ago to make Assaf the first-ever Palestinian refugee to become a goodwill UN ambassador, becoming the Palestine refugee agency UNRWA’s first-ever regional youth ambassador, the source said Saturday.

“A man with a golden voice is going to take the Palestinians’ voice to the universe. At long last, a fantastic story out of Gaza that will touch the hearts of the world,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity as the ambassadorship had not yet been announced.

“It is is a wonderful day for Palestine and for the UN.”

Thousands of Palestinians across the West Bank and Gaza celebrated in the streets late Saturday after the judges announced this year’s winner. They also launched fireworks.

Assaf, a 23-year-old from Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip, has become a household name in Palestine.

In an interview as he prepared for the final stages of the show, he thanked his fans in Palestine for their support.

“If I keep thanking you forever it is never enough,” Assaf said, promising to do his best to keep entertaining his fans.

He also thanked Palestinian leaders for their encouragement, particularly those who came to Beirut to watch him perform in the show.

“Their presence gave me more energy to move on and sing better and represent Palestine in its beautiful image,” he said.

As he succeeded in the final stages of the show, Assaf received phone calls from President Mahmoud Abbas and former Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

The president urged Palestinian communities across the world to vote for Assaf, and instructed the PA Ministry of Foreign Affairs to contact embassies to mobilize support for the Arab Idol star.

Assaf said he would first return to his home in the Gaza Strip after the competition and later perform three shows in West Bank cities.

Source: Ma’an News Agency.

Link: http://www.maannews.net/eng/ViewDetails.aspx?ID=607449.

23/06/2013

JERUSALEM (Ma’an) — A Hamas MP praised Muhammad Assaf for becoming the first Palestinian to win the popular TV competition Arab Idol on Saturday night via Facebook.

MP Yahya Mousa posted on his Facebook page that he welcomed Assaf’s thanks to God and his kneeling to the ground as though in prayer when he was announced the winner.

Assaf won Arab Idol and dedicated his winning to the Palestinian people.

Later it was announced that he was to be made the first Palestinian refugee ambassador for UNRWA, the UN agency tasked with providing services to Palestinian refugees in Palestine and the Middle East.

Assaf, a 23-year-old from Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip, has become a household name in Palestine.

Source: Ma’an News Agency.

Link: http://www.maannews.net/eng/ViewDetails.aspx?ID=607472.

June 21, 2013

BEIRUT (AP) — A rocket slammed into a suburb of Beirut on Friday, bringing the conflict in neighboring Syria closer to Lebanon’s bustling capital and reviving bitter memories of the country’s own devastating civil war.

With skirmishes between Shiites and Sunnis on the rise around the country, religiously mixed and highly vulnerable Lebanon is increasingly buffeted by powerful forces that are dividing the Arab world along sectarian lines.

There were no casualties from the rocket, which struck a Christian area southeast of Beirut overnight, but the incident raised fears that Lebanon was being sucked into a war that has already paralyzed state institutions and strained its economy with the presence of more than a half-million Syrian refugees.

“This is very, very dangerous,” said Pierre Ashkar, head of a syndicate of hotel owners, referring to the potential damage to the tourism industry from such rocket attacks. He said his daughter and her husband were among scores who have canceled plans to come Lebanon.

“When our kids can’t come to Lebanon, I don’t know how a French, British or even a Saudi and Kuwaiti can,” he told The Associated Press. For the most part, Lebanon has stayed on the sidelines of the Arab Spring, keeping up its appearance as an oasis of relative stability, which has helped its tourism and entertainment businesses.

The Lebanese — and the tens of thousands of expatriates and Gulf Arab tourists who visit every summer — have learned to live with the country’s occasional bouts of upheaval and violence, including huge street protests that followed the assassination of a former prime minister in 2005 and deadly street clashes in 2008, when the militant Shiite Hezbollah group briefly overran parts of Beirut.

Beneath the surface lurk the same forces that devastated the country in its years of civil war, with simmering hatreds still dividing Muslims and Christians, Sunnis and Shiites, and secular and fundamentalist groups.

The Lebanese civil war began in 1975 with clashes between mostly Muslim Palestinian factions and Christian militiamen, and eventually turned into a Christian-Muslim civil war in which external players like Saudi Arabia, Syria and Western countries used the country as a battleground.

The uprising in Syria against President Bashar Assad, which began in March 2011, brought sectarian tensions to the surface and has inflamed rivalries. The two countries share a complex web of political and sectarian ties, and Lebanon is deeply divided into pro- and anti-Assad groups, a legacy of Syria’s long dominance of its small neighbor.

Lebanon’s Sunni Muslims mostly back the overwhelmingly Sunni rebels in Syria, while many Shiites support Assad, who is a member of Syria’s minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Sectarian tensions sharply increased after the Shiite militant group Hezbollah openly joined Assad’s forces in fighting the rebels seeking his ouster. Lebanon has seen repeated bursts of violence, but it has mostly been restricted to border areas and the northern city of Tripoli.

Rockets from Syria fall regularly into towns and villages near the border. Last week, the tensions exploded into street clashes in the southern city of Sidon, suggesting the scope of the fighting was widening.

Friday’s rocket slammed into a valley southeast of Beirut, causing a blast that reverberated across large parts of the city and surrounding mountains. After hours of searching, Lebanese soldiers found the rocket in Jamhour, a Christian area near the presidential palace, the Defense Ministry and the Hezbollah stronghold of Dahyeh, the military said in a statement. Two rocket launchers still holding one rocket also were found about 10 miles (15 kilometers) to the north of the city, also in a Christian town.

It was the second such attack in less than a month. Two rockets hit Dahyeh on May 26, wounding four, hours after the Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah vowed in a speech to help propel Assad to victory.

The gap widened when Hezbollah fighters were instrumental in a recent Syrian government victory as they helped pro-Assad forces regain control of the strategic town of Qusair near the Lebanese border.

No one claimed responsibility the rocket attacks near Beirut, but rebels in Syria have vowed to retaliate and have sent rockets slamming into Hezbollah strongholds in northeastern Lebanon. Friday’s attack may also have been an attempt to drag Christian areas into the conflict, or perhaps was intended to send a message to Lebanese President Michel Suleiman, a Christian.

Rebel groups have warned Suleiman to rein in Hezbollah. Under pressure, the president has been increasingly critical of Hezbollah involvement in Syria; on Thursday, he said the group was making a “mistake” and urged it to leave Syria.

The conflict has paralyzed Lebanese institutions. In downtown Beirut, Lebanese protesters continued a sit-in for a second day Friday near the parliament building to demand elections that originally were scheduled in June. Their chants on both evenings were drowned out by music blasting from a nearby rooftop nightclub, a sign of Beirut’s bon vivant lifestyle struggling to prevail.

Last month, the 128-member parliament extended its term by a year and a half, put off the balloting because of the deteriorating security conditions in the country. The demonstrators, who clashed with police Thursday, say the extension was unconstitutional. They have set up tents, blocking a side road in the city center.

Ali Jammoul, a 22-year-old activist and biology student taking part in the sit-in, said he fears the Shiite-Sunni sectarian hatreds will lead to a cycle of revenge killings even uglier than Lebanon’s civil war, which is believed to have killed 150,000 people.

“The Lebanese are hostage to external dictates. They are spectators waiting to see what is going to happen in the battle (for Syria),” he said, adding that Lebanon, with its weak government, was powerless to stay out.

Ashkar, the tourism official, said Beirut is typically packed in the summer with more than 100 percent capacity but now is at only 40 percent occupancy, most of them business travelers. Hezbollah’s public involvement in the war in Syria, he said, was a big blow to the industry that contributes 20 percent to the national income.

“This is really the worst season” since 1992 after the restoration of the tourism industry following the end of civil war, he said. For the first time in years, all of Lebanon’s hotels, with their 22,000 rooms, are partially closed or operating at reduced capacity, he added.

The tension has risen to a point where politicians on TV talk shows regularly throw invectives, and sometimes water glasses, at each other, or engage in a few fistfights. The violence prompted organizers of Lebanon’s famous Baalbek International Festival to announce plans to move the annual music show out of the ancient city with its Roman ruins because of its proximity to the Syrian border. Earlier this month, 18 rockets and mortar rounds fired from Syria hit the area, about 15 kilometers (10 miles) from the Syrian frontier.

“The situation in Baalbek does not permit holding the festival, and we are now looking for a new venue,” an official with the festival said Friday, speaking on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to talk to reporters.

At least one participant, American soprano Renee Fleming, has canceled a planned concert at the festival, which is usually held under the towering columns of the Roman Temple of Jupiter, citing deteriorating security conditions. The festival is scheduled to begin in August.

Many Lebanese have despaired over the violence and the country’s future. “Half of my family left recently,” said Jammoul, who was among bottle-throwing protesters who clashed with police overnight. “My brother was my comrade in the streets. … I cried when I returned to the streets after a week and he wasn’t next to me, when I got beaten and he wasn’t near me,” he said.

Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue contributed to this report.