The US State Department called on Hezbollah on Wednesday to withdraw its fighters from Syria immediately, saying their involvement on the side of President Bashar Assad signaled a dangerous broadening of the war.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki condemned the declaration last weekend by the Lebanese Shi’ite organization’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, confirming that his combatants were in Syria and vowing they would stay in the war “to the end of the road.”

“This is an unacceptable and extremely dangerous escalation. We demand that Hezbollah withdraw its fighters from Syria immediately,” Psaki said at a daily news briefing.

Violence from the Syrian conflict has increasingly spilled over into Lebanon, particularly in the northern city of Tripoli.

Hezbollah’s participation in a battle at the town of Qusair on the Syrian-Lebanese border risks dragging Lebanon into a conflict that has increasingly become overshadowed by Sunni-Shi’ite sectarian violence.

Nasrallah said on Saturday that Syria and Lebanon were facing a threat from radical Sunni Islamists, which he argued was a plot devised by the United States and its allies to serve Israel’s interests.

Psaki also condemned the killing of three Lebanese soldiers at an army checkpoint in the eastern Bekaa Valley on Tuesday.

The gunmen fled toward the Syrian border, but it was not clear who carried out the attack.

“We remain deeply concerned about reports of multiple crossborder security incidents in recent days,” she said.

Asked what the United States would do if Hezbollah did not withdraw, Psaki said Washington was pursuing diplomatic solutions but was also “continuing to increase and escalate our aid and support for the [Syrian] opposition.”

She said Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman and acting Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs Beth Jones would travel to Geneva in the coming week to meet Russian and UN diplomats and work on bringing together an international conference on Syria.

President Barack Obama has repeatedly shied away from US involvement in the conflict, which has claimed 80,000 lives.

France said on Wednesday its intelligence services believed 3,000-4,000 Hezbollah guerrillas were fighting alongside Assad’s army in Syria’s civil war.

“As far as Hezbollah militants present in the battlefield, the figures range from 3,000 to 10,000. Our estimates are between 3,000 and 4,000,” Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told lawmakers.

United Nations human rights chief Navi Pillay said on Wednesday a dramatic increase in the role of Iran-backed Hezbollah gunmen backing Syrian government forces was inflaming regional tensions, without giving numbers.

Fabius pointed the finger at Iran for pushing Hezbollah into the Syrian conflict.

“When you have fighters that are really well armed that are prepared to die and they are several thousand, that makes a difference,” he said.

Fabius has dismissed any suggestion that Iran could be involved in resolving the Syrian crisis, because of its backing of the Assad regime.

“There has been a change on the ground. The involvement of Hezbollah and the fact the Russians have delivered weapons has changed things,” he said. “Even if many elements that are fighting are Syrian, they are being guided by Iranian officials.”

But the Lebanese daily Al- Akhbar reported on Wednesday that Hezbollah’s role in Syria is limited and that Hezbollah understands its limits, refraining from overextending itself into Syria. Instead, the group will concentrate on defending its supply lines, according to the report.

The Syrian Arab News Agency reported on Wednesday that Assad would give an interview on Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV at 9 p.m. on Thursday.

Assad’s media office stated on Facebook that it would be simultaneously broadcast on Syrian TV stations.

The interview reflects the tightening relations between Syria, Hezbollah and Iran. •

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