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Lebanon's Baalbek festival to change venue

Bassem Mroue, Associated Press

A wounded Lebanese riot police applys ice on his eye during clashes with protersters during a demonstration in Beirut, Lebanon, Thursday, June 20, 2013. Lebanon’s parliament on May 29 extended its term by a year and a half, skipping scheduled elections because of the country’s deteriorating security linked to the civil war next door in Syria. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

BEIRUT (AP) -- Lebanon's world famous Baalbek International Festival is looking to move away from the ancient city with its Roman ruins because of spillover violence from Syria's civil war, an official said Friday.

The change of venue from Baalbek, where the annual music festival is usually held under the towering columns of the Roman Temple of Jupiter, is the latest fallout from Syria's civil war, which is increasingly drawing Lebanon in. This month a barrage of 18 rockets and mortar rounds fired from Syria hit Baalbek, about 15 kilometers (10 miles) from the Syrian border.

Lebanon and Syria share a complex web of political and sectarian ties and rivalries that are easily enflamed. Lebanon has been on edge since the uprising in Syria against President Bashar Assad erupted in March 2011. Lebanon's Sunni Muslims mostly back the overwhelmingly Sunni Syrian rebels, while many Shiites support Assad, a member of Syria's minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

In addition to the rockets fired from Syria, the eastern Bekaa Valley, where Baalbek is located, has also seen rising tensions between rival local groups. On Friday, Lebanese troops opened the Beirut-Baalbek highway a day after it was closed by anti-Assad Lebanese. They were protesting a closure by Shiite gunmen of a road leading to the eastern town of Arsal.

An ambush near Baalbek killed four Lebanese Shiite Muslims last Sunday, and some locals blamed residents of Arsal.

"The situation in Baalbek does not permit holding the festival, and we are now looking for a new venue," an official with the Baalbek International Festival told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to speak to reporters.

"Until now there is no cancelation of the festival," the official said, insisting that participants said they would go to any other venue in Lebanon for the festival.

However, at least one participant, American soprano Renee Fleming, has canceled a planned concert, citing the deteriorating security conditions.

Lebanon revived the Baalbek festival in 1997 to publicize its recovery from the 1975-90 civil war, which forced cancellation of the event for 23 years.

Over the decades, Baalbek has been known for its ancient Roman ruins and the international festival under the towering columns that attracted stars like jazz singers Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone.

Recently Lebanon has been jittery because of repeated bursts of violence.

Earlier Friday, Lebanese security officials said hundreds of troops were conducting search operations in Mount Lebanon after a loud explosion was heard in the area. Hours later, officials said the nature of the explosion was still not clear.

The blast was heard in the capital, Beirut, and Mount Lebanon. No one was reported hurt.

Local media reports speculated it was either an exploding rocket or an electricity cable that blew up.

The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with regulations, said the blast centered near the predominantly Christian town of Kahaleh, southeast of Beirut. Kahaleh is near the Lebanese presidential palace.

Last month, two rockets slammed into a Hezbollah stronghold south of Beirut, wounding four. The rockets struck hours after the Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah vowed in a speech to help propel Assad to victory in Syria's civil war.

Hezbollah has openly joined the fight in Syria, and the group's fighters were instrumental in a recent regime victory when government forces regained control of the strategic town of Qusair near the Lebanese border.