Heavy gunfire as Lebanese Army seeks to uproot militants

Posted in Broader Middle East | 25-May-07 | Source: International Herald Tribune

Residents greet Lebanese army troops after clashes with militants of Fatah al-Islam group in Tripoli, northern Lebanon, May 20, 2007.

TRIPOLI, Lebanon: Heavy exchanges of gunfire Thursday marred a two-day truce with an Islamic militant group as the Lebanese Army moved troops around a Palestinian refugee camp but did not attempt to advance, apparently giving time for negotiations and for the militants to comply with a government ultimatum to surrender or face a military assault.

Fighters from the militant group Fatah al-Islam, estimated to number in the hundreds, have barricaded themselves in the Nahr el Bared camp, saying they will fight off any Lebanese attack, and raising the prospect that the Lebanese Army will either storm the camp, in what would likely be a bloody battle, or dig in for a long siege to force their surrender.

Heavy gunfire erupted late Thursday between Lebanese troops and the militants. It was not clear what prompted the exchanges. Until sundown Thursday, only sporadic gunfire marred the truce.

The fighting between the army and the militants, which broke out Sunday, has killed some 50 combatants and many civilians. Thousands of Palestinian civilians - mainly women and children - have fled the camp on the outskirts of this northern port city, but many thousands remain inside.

Most of the Palestinian refugees who have fled the Nahr el Bared camp since the truce took hold Tuesday packed into the nearby Beddawi refugee camp, lining up at UN-run schools and clinics with registration cards hoping to get food and mattresses. The camp's six schools were overflowing with refugees who said that up to 50 people were sleeping in each class room.

More refugees trickled out of Nahr el Bared on Thursday. They left packed in a few pickup truck or walked out to the first army checkpoints where they were checked and allowed to proceed.

"How many times do we have to be displaced?" asked one Palestinian refugee, Nohad Abdel-Al, clad in a black robe and a black head scarf.

Her husband, Bakri Abdel-Al, said the family's two-story house had been destroyed and that they had decided to leave Thursday "because we are now hearing the fighting will resume."

Amid media reports of Muslim clerics negotiating with the militants to avert an army onslaught, Lebanon's government appeared to be preparing the ground for a showdown, including the possible storming of the camp. The Lebanese military stays out of the camps under a 1969 agreement that allows the Palestinians to run them.

Prime Minister Fouad Siniora said in a TV address Thursday that Fatah al-Islam was "a terrorist organization" and blamed the group for "attempting to ride on the suffering and the struggle of the Palestinian people."

"We will work to root out and strike at terrorism, but we will embrace and protect our brothers in the camps," Siniora said, insisting that Lebanon had no quarrel with the 400,000 Palestinian refugees who live in the country.

Storming the Nahr el Bared camp - a densely built town of narrow streets on the Mediterranean coast - could cause unrest in Lebanon's 11 other Palestinian refugee camps. Although Palestinian factions have dissociated themselves from Fatah al-Islam, refugees in other camps, which are rife with armed groups, were seething with anger over the army bombardments that have partially destroyed Nahr el Bared.

In a sign of the danger, a bomb exploded Wednesday night in the Aley mountain resort overlooking Beirut, a 90-minute drive south of Nahr el Bared. The blast, which wounded 16 people, was the third in the Beirut area since Sunday. One person has been killed and a dozen wounded in the two other attacks.

Fatah al-Islam has denied responsibility for the bombings, but it had threatened to take the battle outside Tripoli if the army attacked.

A senior army official said troops had sunk two small boats carrying militants who tried to flee the camp Tuesday via the sea. The official said all passengers on the two boats were killed, but did not specify how many.