Uneasy truce in Lebanon

NAHR BARED (AFP) — Islamist fighters declared a ceasefire on Tuesday after three days of fierce battles with Lebanese troops at a Palestinian refugee camp, but two civilians were gunned down just hours later as UN workers delivered desperately needed aid.

The announcement came early in the afternoon, with fighting already at a lull at Nahr Bared, a squalid camp transformed into a war zone by a barrage of tank and artillery fire aimed at wiping out Al Qaeda-inspired Sunni group Fateh Al Islam.

Spokesman Abu Sali Taha said the group would respect a ceasefire from 1130 GMT, but warned: “If the bombardments of the army resume, we will be patient for a while but we will respond if they persist.” Around four hours later, spokesmen for both sides said the truce appeared to be taking hold, but a UN official said two Palestinian civilians were shot dead when aid trucks moved in with food, medical supplies and generators. Abu Salim said: “Our men are respecting the  ceasefire and so are the Lebanese soldiers.” An army spokesman said: “It is calm around the perimeter of the camp. There is no fire from our soldiers.” United Nations Relief and Works Agency spokeswoman Hoda Samra said: “Two civilian Palestinian refugees were killed when our convoy came under fire,” adding that no UN staffers were hurt. “We don’t know the source of the fire, and we had to leave the camp immediately,” she said.

Samra said the convoy “offloaded all the food and medical supplies, except water because the truck carrying it was hit and the water was spilled.

“We will try to deliver more supplies tomorrow. These people rely on us, and they have been without water, electricity, telephones and have started to run short of food and medical supplies.” From daybreak, government troops had hammered positions of Fateh Al Islam fighters holed up in the camp on the third day of warfare that has killed 68 people and wounded scores more.

It is the bloodiest internal feuding since the 1975-1990 civil war and has stoked fears that it could spread to other Palestinian camps and further shake the security of a country riven by sectarian and political tensions.

Lebanese security forces also pursued fighters in Tripoli, where a Fateh Al Islam man blew himself up during a raid on an apartment block that had seen earlier fighting.

EU foreign policy envoy Javier Solana, in Beirut for talks with leaders on both sides of the political divide, appealed for a halt to the bloodshed.

“I am hoping very much for calm,” he told a news conference after meeting Prime Minister Fuad Siniora.

But Washington confirmed that it had received a request for additional military aid from Siniora’s government on top of the $40 million  provided in 2006 and the $5 million already given so far this year.

“Right now, we are considering a request for additional assistance coming from the Lebanese government,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.

The fragile security situation in Lebanon was underscored by a bomb blast in Beirut on Monday that wounded 10 people a day after a woman was killed in a similar attack in the capital.

In the face of the continuing battles, the Lebanese government vowed after an emergency meeting on Monday to crush the “terrorist phenomenon” of Fateh Al Islam.

According to army and Palestinian sources, 30 troops and 18 fighters have been killed along with 19 Palestinian refugees and one Lebanese civilian.

Nahr Bared, a shantytown of narrow alleyways, is home to about 31,000 of the 400,000 Palestinian refugees living in about 12 camps across the country.

Under a four decades-old arrangement the camps remain outside the authority of the government, leaving security to Palestinian armed factions.

The Lebanon chief of the mainstream Fateh movement warned that continued shelling of Nahr Bared could trigger an uprising by refugees in other camps.

“No Palestinian, or Palestinian faction in Lebanon will accept seeing the Palestinian people slaughtered in a collective punishment as is happening in Nahr Bared,” Sultan Abul Aynayn told AFP.

The international community has condemned the violence and voiced support for the embattled Lebanese government’s efforts to restore order.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon demanded an immediate end to the “criminal attacks” by Islamist extremists and deplored the deadly shooting during the UN relief mission to the camp.

Lebanese officials have accused Fateh Al Islam of working for Syrian intelligence to stir up trouble. The group’s Palestinian leader, Shaker Abssi, slipped in to Lebanon last year after serving three years in a Syrian jail.

But Syria denied any ties with the group.

Lebanon’s Western-backed government has been paralysed for months by feuding between opponents of former power broker Damascus and pro-Syrian factions including Shiite group Hizbollah, which led last summer’s war with Israel.

Syria withdrew its troops from Lebanon in 2005 amid an international furore over the murder of five-time prime minister Rafiq Hariri, for which it was widely blamed, but it still wields enormous influence.

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