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Syria war forces music festival from Lebanon's Roman ruins

An army soldier mans a checkpoint after two men died in clashes near a Lebanese army checkpoint, in the town of Arsal, in the eastern Bekaa
An army soldier mans a checkpoint after two men died in clashes near a Lebanese army checkpoint, in the town of Arsal, in the eastern Bekaa

By Laila Bassam

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Lebanon's annual Baalbek music festival has been forced to move from its usual venue among Roman ruins in the Bekaa Valley because of rocket fire and a spillover of fighting from Syria, organizers said on Thursday.

Baalbek is a stronghold of the Lebanese Shi'ite militant group Hezbollah, which is fighting across the border alongside its ally Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against a two-year-old rebel uprising.

Rockets thought to have been fired by supporters of the Syrian revolt over the past few weeks have landed in Baalbek and Hezbollah fighters have fought Syrian rebels on Lebanese soil east of the town.

The town is home to some of the best preserved Roman temples, in which world-renowned musicians such as jazz vocalist Ella Fitzgerald and British singer Sting have performed.

Nayla de Freij, chairwoman of the Baalbek International Festival Committee, said that security concerns made holding the event among the town's ruins an "impossibility".

But she said organizers were determined to press ahead with the festival, now scheduled to open on August 9, and they were looking at new venues, probably in Beirut, that would be announced shortly.

The festival, founded in 1956 by then-President Camille Chamoun, was halted during Lebanon's 15-year civil war which ended in 1990. It was also suspended during a war between Hezbollah and Israel in 2006, when the modern part of the city was heavily bombed.

The event normally draws in tourists during Lebanon's summer season, especially Arabs from the Gulf countries who come to escape the heat and enjoy Lebanon's bars and restaurants. This year, very few tourists have arrived, organizers say.

The festival had originally been due to open in Baalbek on June 30 with a concert by Grammy Award-winning U.S. soprano Renee Fleming but she cancelled her visit to Lebanon.

Syrian helicopters have fired on Lebanese territory while hunting for fleeing rebels. Militants supporting opposing sides of the Syria war have also clashed this year in Lebanon's port cities of Tripoli and Sidon.

Lebanon's other summer cultural festivals, including one held in Beiteddine Palace in the pine forest of the Chouf Mountains and another in the Phoenician port of Byblos, will go ahead as planned. The Beiteddine festival starts on Friday.

Hala Chahine, director of the Beiteddine festival, said the number of foreigners attending the festival had dropped by 15 percent last year due to a decline in tourist arrivals.

"Lots of people won't come to Lebanon ... but despite all this, we have to continue ... to show there is another Lebanon, there is a Lebanon with a civilized face and a cultural face."

(Writing by Oliver Holmes, Editing by Gareth Jones)

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