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Syrian civil war spills over into Lebanon

TRIPOLI, Lebanon — The families of Lebanese men killed in Syria last week say their relatives were more interested in nice clothes and vacations than fighting a civil war. Yet Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime branded them foreign jihadists — and their deaths set off three days of new spillover violence.

Gunmen loyal to opposite sides in Syria’s civil war battled Wednesday in the streets of the Lebanese city of Tripoli. The fighting has killed six people and wounded nearly 60 since Monday, security officials said.

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The bloodshed is a sign of just how vulnerable Lebanon is to getting sucked into the Syrian crisis. The countries share a porous border and a complex web of political and sectarian ties that is easily enflamed.

Among the 17 Lebanese men who turned up dead in Syria last week were Bilal Ghoul and his childhood friend, Malek Haj Deeb, both 20. Malek’s older brother, Jihad, said the two men sympathized with the rebellion, but they were not fighters.

‘‘Malek used to see the videos of dead Syrians and cry,’’ Jihad Haj Deeb said in Tripoli, as gunfire and explosions echoed near his home in the poor neighborhood of Mankoubeen.

Haj Deeb and Bilal Ghoul’s older brother, Omar, said the men must have been kidnapped and handed over to Syrian authorities by a pro-Syrian Lebanese group. They said their brothers were not members of any political or Islamic group but were observant Muslims.

‘‘My brother doesn’t know how to hold a rifle,’’ Haj Deeb said.

‘My brother doesn’t know how to hold a rifle.’

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In Brussels, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton reiterated concerns that ‘‘an increasingly desperate Assad regime might turn to chemical weapons’’ or lose control of them to militant groups.

She also said NATO’s decision on Tuesday to send Patriot missiles to Turkey’s southern border with Syria sends a message that Ankara is backed by its allies. The missiles are intended only for defensive purposes, she said.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu was quoted Wednesday in the Turkish newspaper Sabah as saying that Syria has about 700 missiles, some of them long-range.

Syria has been careful not to confirm it has chemical weapons, while insisting it would never use such weapons against its own people.

But as the regime wobbles, there are fears the crisis will keep spiraling outside its borders. Fighting has spilled over into Turkey, Jordan, and Israel since the uprising began more than 20 months ago, but Lebanon is particularly susceptible.

For much of the past 30 years, Lebanese have lived under Syrian military and political domination.

That grip began to slip in 2005, when former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated in Beirut. Widely accused of involvement — something it has always denied — Syria was forced to withdraw its troops. But Damascus has maintained power and influence in Lebanon.

Syria’s state-run news agency, SANA, reported that 17 Lebanese ‘‘gunmen’’ were killed inside Syria last week, and on Sunday, Syrian TV aired footage of the dead.

Bassam Dada, a political adviser for the rebel Free Syrian Army, said the group believes the Lebanese men were the victims of a ‘‘complicated Syrian intelligence operation’’ aimed at showing that foreign fighters are involved in fighting in Syria.

On Wednesday, Syrian Ambassador Ali Abdul-Karim Ali said that Damascus has agreed to repatriate the men’s bodies. Lebanon’s National News Agency said the countries would soon discuss how to hand them over.

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