Lebanese Army renews assault on Palestinian camp

Posted in Broader Middle East | 23-May-07 | Author: Hassan Fattah| Source: International Herald Tribune

Palestinian boys beside tires that were set on fire to protest Lebanese Army attacks on the Nahr al Bared refugee camp.

NAHR AL BARED REFUGEE CAMP, Lebanon: The Lebanese Army pressed ahead Tuesday with its battle against militants holed up in a refugee camp on the outskirts of Tripoli, ending a brief cease-fire with a barrage of shelling and gunfire that hampered rescue and aid efforts and raised political tensions in other parts of the country.

Packed cars filled with refugees streamed out of the camp during the brief lull in the fighting, many waving white flags to avoid attack, as snipers belonging to both the army and militants fired at them.

Plumes of black smoke billowed out of the Nahr al Bared refugee camp as a United Nations aid convoy delivered food and medical supplies. The convoy was attacked by mortar fire, sending aid workers scrambling for shelter and hampering the aid effort. No one was wounded in the attack, but three damaged UN trucks were abandoned in flames, one official said.

The fierce fighting between the army and Fatah al-Islam, a militia inspired by Al Qaeda, continued uninterrupted for much of Sunday and Monday before a brief lull Monday night, when numerous wounded were evacuated. The violence resumed early Tuesday until a new cease-fire took hold at 2:30 p.m. for about two hours.

It was not immediately clear who attacked the UN convoy, but the army denied having shelled the trucks.

Up to 40,000 Palestinians have been trapped inside the camp with no water or electricity and dwindling supplies of food as the shelling continued, presenting a humanitarian crisis for aid groups that have been unable to enter the camp for fear of being attacked.

"There's a lot of destruction and people are going hungry," said Ahmed Arif, 24, who drove his family out of the camp to safety. "The food is running out, the water tanks have been shot out and there are many people needing immediate help but no one can help them."

A massive exodus from the Nahr al Bared refugee camp began at about 9 p.m. during the lull in the fighting between the Lebanese Army and the militants, The Associated Press reported.

The Lebanese government continued to work with Palestinian officials to try to arrange a more permanent cease-fire, but it remained unclear how the Lebanese Army could back down from the current confrontation before it has removed the Islamic militants from the camp. Overnight, the government ordered the army to finish off the militants, The Associated Press reported.

In other refugee camps in Lebanon, tensions grew as angry Palestinians burned tires to protest the Lebanese Army assault on the Nahr al Bared camp, raising fears that the campaign against Fatah al-Islam could widen into broader tensions with the thousands of Palestinians in other refugee camps.

Palestinians who came to the Safad hospital in the Bawadi refugee camp blamed the government for allowing Fatah al-Islam to grow, and said they believed that Palestinians in general were being deliberately targeted in the attacks.

The fighting began early Sunday when a police raid aimed at apprehending bank robbers escalated into one of Lebanon's most significant security crises since the end of the civil war in 1990.

By late Monday evening, government officials said, at least 60 people had been killed: 30 soldiers, 15 militants and 15 civilians. The figures are likely to rise once aid groups can get full access to the camp. Early evidence suggests that the civilian casualties are likely to be dramatically higher.

During the fighting, Fatah al-Islam, which is thought to have links with Al Qaeda, has fired antiaircraft guns and mortars and used night-vision goggles and other relatively sophisticated equipment. The Lebanese Army does not have such advanced gear.

Lebanese television stations reported on Monday that among the dead militants were men from Bangladesh, Yemen and other Arab countries, although the reports could not be confirmed. Security officials said some of the men wore explosive belts used by suicide bombers.

Troops were ordered to shell any building that was the source of return fire, one official said, while members of Fatah al-Islam threatened to take the fight across the country. At one point Monday, several militants tried to come on to the main road, only to face a hail of machine-gun fire from army soldiers.

That served to raise the stakes for the untested Lebanese Army, which has struggled to deal with the most significant challenge to its prestige since the end of Lebanon's bloody civil war.

Fatah al-Islam has been a growing concern for security authorities in Lebanon and much of the region.

Intelligence officials say that the group counts between 150 and 200 fighters in its ranks and that it subscribes to the radical precepts of Al Qaeda.

Leaders of the group have in the past claimed that they aimed to send trained fighters into Iraq.

Lebanese officials accuse Syria of having organized and financed the group. The Syrian foreign minister, speaking to reporters Monday, countered that Syria had sought to arrest the group's leaders and had an interest in crushing them.

Nada Bakri contributed reporting for this article.

Lebanon has asked the United States for $280 million in military assistance to help put down an uprising by Qaeda-inspired militants operating from a Palestinian refugee camp, the State Department said Tuesday, The Associated Press reported from Washington.

About $220 million would go to the Lebanese Armed Forces and another $60 million to security forces, said Sean McCormack, a State Department spokesman. He added that the United States was weighing the request.

The aid would represent a significant increase over previous years. McCormack said $40 million in equipment and training was sent in 2006 and about $5 million is earmarked for the current year.

The White House, meanwhile, said militants operating out of the refugee camp wanted to disrupt the nation's security and distract international attention from an effort at the United Nations to establish a special tribunal to try suspects in the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in Beirut.

Reaffirming support for Prime Minister Fouad Siniora's Western-backed government, the White House press secretary said the United States "will not tolerate attempts by Syria, terrorist groups or any others to delay or derail Lebanon's efforts to solidify its sovereignty or seek justice in the Hariri case."

"Those committing violence and their sponsors seek to deny the people of Lebanon the democracy, peace and stability they deserve," he said.