BEIRUT (AP) — A Lebanon-based militant pledged allegiance to an al-Qaida-linked group Saturday, calling on Sunni Muslim soldiers to quit a Lebanese army he claimed is controlled by Christians and Shiites.
Abu Sayyaf al-Ansari made the pledge to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant in a recording posted online and broadcast on major television stations, including leading private channel LBC, which said it obtained it from online jihadi forums.
It comes after months of increasing violence in the country, where at least five suicide attacks in predominantly Shiite areas and against Lebanese troops have left scores dead and wounded.
The Lebanese are sharply divided over the civil war in neighboring Syria, with many Sunnis backing rebels trying to overthrow President Bashar Assad, who is supported by a large number of Shiites.
As word of the recording spread, former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, one of the country's most prominent Sunni politicians, warned in a statement that Lebanese, especially Sunnis should be suspicious of "calls that aim to throw Lebanon into a war that everyone rejects."
Al-Ansari claimed in the recording that he was speaking from the predominantly Sunni northern city of Tripoli where Islamic groups have been fighting the pro-Assad Arab Democratic Party since the Syrian crisis began, nearly three years ago.
"We pledge allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Husseini al-Qarashi al-Baghdadi and we will obey his orders," Abu Sayyaf said, referring to the Islamic State leader. "Take us wherever you want, take us to difficulties and make us the point of your lance so that we crush your enemy."
"I call upon Sunnis in the Army of the Cross to fear God and leave this tyrant," he said, referring to the religiously mixed Lebanese army. "Don't be a sword that Christians and Shiites carry to stab you."
Phillip Smyth, a Washington-based researcher on Islamic groups in Lebanon and Syria, said the audio's tone and message reflected a broader theme of Sunni extremists trying to anger their Shiite rivals.
"They wanted to make their mark," Smyth said, suggesting the cleric was thinking: "Everybody hates the Islamic State, so we'll go with the Islamic State. A lot of it comes down to messaging: I am going to pick the biggest and baddest and go with them — how do you like that."
Also Saturday, an al-Qaida-inspired group in Lebanon warned Sunnis to stay away from areas dominated by Shiites, saying it intends to attack strongholds of the Iranian-backed Shiite Hezbollah group that is fighting in Syria.
The Nusra Front in Lebanon made the threat Friday on Twitter and it was reposted a day later on websites used by militant groups.
The Nusra Front in Lebanon takes its name from the powerful al-Qaida-linked group fighting in Syria against the Assad's rule. The group has claimed responsibility for two small bombing attacks targeting Lebanese Shiites in January that killed six people.
Hours after the warning, three rockets struck a Hezbollah stronghold in the northeastern town of Hermel near the Syrian border without causing casualties, the state-run National News Agency and residents said.
Meanwhile, Syria's Greek Orthodox Patriarch, John Yazigi, said in Beirut that a dozen nuns kidnapped by opposition fighters in Syria late last year "are fine."
Speaking to reporters, Yazigi said there was contact between the nuns and his office "several days ago."
"They were then in a house in Yabroud and they are well but that is not enough. We hope that they will be released soon," Yazigi said. Yabroud is a Syrian rebel-held town near the border with Lebanon.
The seizure of the 12 Greek Orthodox nuns and at least three other women was the latest attack to spark panic among Syria's Christians over the strength of al-Qaida-linked militants and other Islamic radicals in the nearly 3-year-old revolt against Assad's government. A priest and two bishops previously kidnapped by rebels remain missing.
Yazigi said he has no information about the two bishops but hopes they are fine.
Associated Press writer Diaa Hadid contributed to this report from Beirut.