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BEIRUT (AP) — A suicide car bomber reportedly killed three people at a checkpoint manned by the Shiite Hezbollah militia in eastern Lebanon Saturday evening, the state-run news agency reported, as the war in Syria spilled over into its eastern neighbor.
However, a Hezbollah-run TV station reported later that the suicide bomber did not kill anyone at the checkpoint. There was no immediate way to reconcile the contradictory reports.
Hours before the suicide bombing, the family of a Lebanese soldier held captive by militants in Syria said their son had been killed, and a video posted on show media networks appeared to show the man being shot to death.
The suicide car bomber detonated his explosives-rigged vehicle at the checkpoint about 3 miles (4.8 kilometers) from the Syria border near the town of Khreibeh, Lebanon's National News Agency said.
It wasn't immediately clear if the casualties were bystanders or Hezbollah fighters.
The last such suicide car bombing occurred in February. Since July 2013, dozens of people have been killed in more than a dozen suicide car bombings that have rocked the country.
The Saturday attack was likely linked to the war in Syria, as were the previous bombings, as the spillover from the Syrian war raises sectarian tensions in the tiny Mediterranean country, where Sunnis and Shiites back opposing sides of the neighboring conflict.
Sunni militants, including the Islamic State group, have been trying to punish the Iranian-backed Hezbollah because its fighters are battling alongside forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad. They have claimed responsibility for previous bombings in Lebanon that have targeted Shiite communities. But they have also increasingly targeted the Lebanese army itself, seeing it as aligned with Hezbollah fighters. Some Lebanese Sunnis complain that the army is biased, because it has only cracked down on Sunni militants heading to Syria, and not on Hezbollah fighters.
Tensions have ratcheted further in recent weeks, after militants from Syria overran a Lebanese border town, Arsal, in early August, capturing and killing soldiers and police. The militants, including the al-Qaida linked Nusra Front and the extremist Islamic State group, are holding some 20 Lebanese hostages.
At least three have been killed by their captors. Two have been beheaded by Islamic State militants, sparking days of violence against Syrian refugees in Lebanon and tit-for-tat kidnappings between Sunnis and Shiites.
News of the killing of the third soldier surfaced Saturday, when the father of one of the men held captive by the Nusra Front said he believed that his son had been killed by the militants.
Maarouf Hamiyeh said his son Mohammed was likely shot to death after a video appeared onlilne showing the soldier repeating the demands of his captors before being shot.
"It's confirmed," the father said grimly in an interview with The Associated Press.
In the video, a man identified as Mohammed Hamiyeh is shown kneeling in what appears to be an orchard, dizzily swaying as he tries to breathe, pleading that Hezbollah fighters must leave Syria or otherwise his captive comrades would be killed.
"I am paying the price now, and all of my friends will die, all of them," he said, his voice occasionally breaking into sobs.
As he spoke, a masked man sat silently behind him, and seconds later shot the Lebanese soldier in the back of his head. A captive Lebanese policeman then was shown, his hands handcuffed, pleading with the Lebanese government to speed up negotiations or he would be killed next.
Twitter messages by a Nusra Front account said that Hamiyeh was "sacrificed" and warned that the policeman would be next.
Another tweet on a Nusra Front account said the al-Qaida linked rebel group was open to negotiations to secure the release of the Lebanese captives, but that so far all negotiations had failed. At least seven of the captured Lebanese soldiers and policemen are being held by the Nusra Front, while the others are being detained by the Islamic State group..
Following the video's release, angry Shiite residents near Hamiyeh's hometown kidnapped Sunnis from a neighboring village, even as his family pleaded for calm. The thud of exploding artillery rounds could be heard for miles as Lebanese soldiers shelled barren hills in the border region.
On Friday, attackers detonated a roadside bomb as a Lebanese army truck passed by on a road near Arsal, killing two soldiers and wounding three others.
Prime Minister Tammam Salam blamed jihadi extremists for the roadside bombing in a statement by his office.
The attack came after the army detained a Lebanese and two Syrians alleged to be part of a terrorist cell near Arsal. On Wednesday, jihadi gunmen crossed from Syria and snatched a Lebanese soldier.
The Islamic State group, which controls parts of Syria and Iraq, has also beheaded two Americans and a British citizen in recent weeks