Death toll mounts as Lebanon troops bombard gunmen

13.jpgNAHR AL BARED (AFP) — Lebanese troops bombarded Islamist gunmen with tanks and heavy artillery on Monday, the second day of the bloodiest internal fighting since the civil war that has killed 58 people.At least nine civilians died in the latest fighting in a Palestinian refugee camp of north Lebanon, besieged by soldiers in tanks battling gunmen from the shadowy Sunni splinter faction Fateh Al Islam, a camp medic said. Late on Monday, three soldiers were killed and several wounded as the gunmen attacked an army post outside an entrance to the camp, security sources said.

The fighting had otherwise eased although sporadic fire continued, an AFP correspondent said, as reinforcements on board some 15 troop carriers took up position around the camp.

Save The Children, which supports projects in the camp, warned that the humanitarian situation for non-combatants was “deteriorating rapidly”.

Huge plumes of thick black smoke billowed into the sky over Nahr Al Bared camp, which has been turned into a war zone by ferocious battles between soldiers and Fateh Al Islam, a group accused of links to Al Qaeda and Syrian intelligence.

Fears were mounting of a humanitarian crisis in the camp, a coastal shantytown of narrow alleyways where rescue workers were struggling to evacuate the dead and wounded and buildings were bombed out and power supplies cut.

The international community condemned the violence and voiced support for the Lebanese government’s efforts to restore order after 46 people were killed on Sunday alone.

“It would appear that the Lebanese security forces are working in a legitimate manner to provide a secure and stable environment for the Lebanese people, in the wake of provocations and attacks,” the US State Department said.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon regards the Fateh Al Islam actions as “an attack on Lebanon’s stability and sovereignty”, the secretary general’s spokeswoman said.

Syria saw the turmoil as a bid to prod the UN Security Council into setting up the international tribunal to try suspects in the murder of Lebanese ex-premier Rafiq Hariri, for which Damascus has been widely blamed.

Syria’s UN Ambassador Bashar Jaafari also denied any ties between Damascus and Fateh Al Islam.

As warships patrolled nearby coastal waters, troops were locked in heavy exchanges of artillery and machinegun fire and a military spokesman said the army had extended its control to all camp entrances.

But Fateh Al Islam threatened to extend attacks beyond Tripoli if the army continued to pound its positions.

“The army is not only opening fire on us. It is shelling blindly. If this continues, we will carry the battle outside the [nearby port] city of Tripoli,” spokesman Abu Salim Taha told AFP.

Officials voiced fears about the plight of refugees trapped in the camp, where the Red Cross was able to evacuate about 17 people during a brief lull in the fighting.

“We are deeply concerned about the developing humanitarian crisis, particularly the danger to civilian lives,” UN Palestinian refugee agency director Richard Cook said.

Doctors described seeing bodies strewn on the streets of Nahr Al Bared, which like all refugee camps in Lebanon remain outside the control of the government and in the hands of Palestinian factions.

“The electricity has been cut, there’s not much water and the camp’s bakeries are shut,” said Hajj Rifaat, an official from the mainstream Palestinian movement Fateh.

It is the worst explosion of violence — excluding warfare with Israel — since the 1975-1990 civil war and has raised fears about the stability of multi-confessional Lebanon, already in the grip of an acute political crisis.

A 63-year-old woman was also killed and 10 people wounded in a bomb blast in a Christian area of Beirut on Sunday.

Over past two years, the country has been rocked by a string of attacks, many targeting critics of the regime in neighbouring Syria which still has political clout in Lebanon despite pulling out its troops in 2005.

The gunbattles erupted at dawn on Sunday after Fateh Al Islam ambushed an army post outside the camp, and spread to Lebanon’s second city of Tripoli where troops staging an assault on a building where fighters were holed up.

That day, 27 soldiers and 17 gunmen were reported killed, in addition to a civilian and a refugee in Nahr Al Bared, home to about 30,000 of Lebanon’s estimated 400,000 Palestinian refugees.

A security official said government forces found the bodies of 10 Islamists, including Saddam Hajj Dib who was wanted over a plot to blow up trains in Germany last July, in the building stormed on Sunday.

Another was identifed as Abu Yazan, Fateh Al Islam’s number three, accused of responsibility for bus bombings in February that killed three people.

Officials from the main Palestinian factions — which deny any links with Fateh Al Islam — offered to help crush the gunmen in talks with Prime Minister Fuad Siniora.

But the mainstream Fateh chief for Lebanon, Sultan Aboul Aynaïn, called for a halt to the army’s bombardment, warning that Palestinian civilians were paying the price for the actions of “a gang of outlaws”.

Siniora, whose Western-backed government has been paralysed for months by feuding between opponents of former power broker Damascus and pro-Syrian factions, has said the government is determined to enforce law and order. 

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