TRIPOLI (AFP) â€” Fierce gunbattles raged in Lebanon on Sunday between soldiers and shadowy Islamist fighters accused of links to Al Qaeda, leaving 40 dead in the bloodiest such clashes in seven years.
Lebanese troops staged a broad daylight assault on a building in Tripoli where fighters from Fateh Al Islam were holed up after deadly shoot-outs in the northern port city and and a nearby Palestinian refugee camp.
The army said 23 soldiers lost their lives in the deadliest fighting between security forces and Islamists since 2000, while 15 gunmen were killed, 10 of them in Tripoli.
A Lebanese civilian died after being caught in the cross fire when troops stormed the building in a residential neighbourhood of Lebanon’s second largest city.
A Palestinian refugee was also killed by the Lebanese army’s bombardment of the Nahr Bared camp, a Fateh Al Islam stronghold.
Lebanon sent in heavy troop reinforcements to contain the battles involving anti-tank rockets and cannons which erupted at dawn in Tripoli and around Nazhr Bared.
“We are now in control of the situation in Tripoli,” Lebanese security chief General Ashraf Rifi said, after 12 hours of fighting.
But the sound of gunfire continued to rattle through the streets shortly before sunset and even in the capital, patrols and roadblocks were visibly stepped up, with armoured cars circulating on the streets.
The army said two of its soldiers were killed in renewed fighting around the Nahr Bared camp in the early evening.
After an emergency meeting with security chiefs, the Cabinet authorised the army to “take all necessary measures to restore order.” “There is no decision to enter the camp,” where, under longstanding convention, security is the responsibility of Palestinian groups, Information Minister Ghazi Aridi said.
“But the army has already started to act. The choices are difficult but we will not step back,” he added.
The bodies of seven soldiers, including one officer, were discovered after darkness fell at an army post which had been occupied by the fighters during the day, an army spokesman said.
Four wounded Palestinians were evacuated from Nahr Bared, a Red Crescent spokesman said, adding that there were more casualties still inside the camp.
“The blows dealt by Fateh Al Islam against the Lebanese army are a premeditated crime and a dangerous attempt to destabilise [Lebanon],” charged Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, whose Western-backed government has been paralysed for months by an acute political crisis.
The clashes drew expressions of concern at home and abroad for the stability of Lebanon, where feuding leaders largely set aside their differences to appeal for public support for the security services.
According to various sources, more than 30 Lebanese soldiers, 16 police, seven civilians and about 40 refugees were also wounded in the violence.
“We warn the army against continuing its provocations against our mujahedeen [Islamic fighters] or risk us opening fire against it and all of Lebanon,” said a statement said to have been issued by Fateh Al Islam.
The army said the fighting was triggered when the fighters staged an attack on a military post outside Nahr Bared, home to about 22,000 refugees.
Syria, the former power broker in Lebanon, announced it had closed two border posts into its smaller neighbour because of the violence.
Lebanese authorities have accused Fateh Al Islam, a splinter group said to be ideologically close to Osama Ben Laden’s network, of working for the Syrian intelligence services.
Lebanese MP Mustafa Hashem renewed the accusation Sunday, charging that Damascus was seeking to stir trouble at a time when the UN Security Council was preparing to consider imposing an international court to try suspects in the 2005 murder of former premier Rafiq Hariri in which it has been implicated.
Fateh Al Islam was also accused of carrying out bus bombings in a mountainous Christian area north of Beirut in February that left three people dead.
But the group denied any involvement in the bombings, and any links to Al Qaeda. Syria has also denied any links with it.
The group accused the government of trying to pave the way for an offensive against the Palestinian camps in Lebanon, which house more than half of the country’s nearly 400,000 refugees.
Fateh Al Islam is headed by Shaker Abssi, who is said to be linked to the former leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Mussab Zarqawi, who was killed in a US raid in 2006.
The clashes were the deadliest since January 2000 when 45 people were killed in fighting between the army and Sunni fighters of the Takfir Whijra group in the Dinnieh area of northern Lebanon.