NAHR BARED REFUGEE CAMPÂ (AP) â€” Lebanon’s defence minister issued an ultimatum Wednesday to gunmen barricaded in this Palestinian refugee camp to surrender or face a military onslaught, as the army reinforced its positions, raising fears of what could be a bloody showdown.
Fighters from the Al Qaeda-inspired Fateh Islam group vowed not to give up and to resist any Lebanese assault. Storming the NahrÂ Bared camp â€” a densely built-up town of narrow streets on the Mediterranean coast â€” could mean rough urban fighting for Lebanese troops and further death and destruction for the thousands of civilians who remain inside. It could also have grave repercussions elsewhere across troubled Lebanon, sparking unrest among the country’s estimated 400,000 Palestinians. Already some of the other refugee camps in Lebanon, which are rife with armed groups, are seething with anger at the fighting.
In a sign of the dangers, a bomb exploded Wednesday night in a mountain resort overlooking Beirut, a 90-minute drive south of Nahr Bared, injuring two people â€” the third blast in the area of the capital since fighting began at the camp Sunday.
Fateh Islam denied responsibility for the other two bombs, which killed a woman and injured a dozen people. But many Lebanese fear the string of bombings could be a warning of more to come if the siege continues.
But the military appeared determined to uproot Fateh Islam after three days of heavy bombardment of the camp, sparked by an attack on Lebanese troops on Sunday following a raid on its fighters in the nearby northern city of Tripoli.
“Preparations are seriously underway to end the matter,” Defense Minister Elias Murr saidÂ in an interview with the Al Arabiya television. “The army will not negotiate with a group of terrorists and criminals. Their fate is arrest, and if they resist the army, death.” Around half of NahrÂ Bared’s 31,000 residents have fled the camp since a halt in the fighting Tuesday night, with families streaming out carrying plastic bags full of clothes. They travelled on foot and in cars, clutching babies, past burned out shops and wrecked cars on streets strewn with broken glass, garbage and even dead rats.
But thousands remained behind, either too ill to travel or unwilling to abandon their homes, and are now in danger of being caught in the crossfire.
Ahmed Kanaan â€” at 92, too old to move â€” was staying in the camp with his 37-year-old daughter. “We are treated like dogs,” said the old man, who fled his home in what is now the Israeli city of Nazareth in 1948. “They step on us and continue walking.” “I would have been better off had Palestine died altogether” in 1948, he said.
Occasional gunshots broke the quiet Tuesday night, witnesses said, but there was no fighting throughout the day Wednesday. In the afternoon, the army brought seven more armored carriers to its positions ringing the camp and hours later, four tanks were also brought up. But the troops did not move beyond the front line. Army officials in Beirut refused to comment on the reinforcements.
The first indications of the death toll from the three-days of bombardment began to emerge. UN relief officials said the bodies of at least 20 civilians were retrieved from inside the camp during the halt in fighting.
Murr said 30 Lebanese soldiers have been killed in the battle and put the death toll among gunmen at as many as 60, including fighters from Lebanon, Syria and Saudi Arabia. But a top Fateh Islam leader said only 10 of his men have been killed.
Fateh Islam said it was ready for a fight.
“We are not going to let those pigs defeat us,” said one of around a half-dozen fighters standing outside the group’s office inside the camp. The fighter, who identified himself with the pseudonym Abu Jaafar, wore a belt hung with grenades.
Another man who said he was a deputy leader of the group said Fateh Islam was willing to enter a permanent ceasefire with the military if they are allowed to remain in the camp.
But “if they enter, we are ready. They can try but they won’t be able to. They will face a massacre,” he told the Associated Press in a building in the camp, giving his pseudonym as Abu Hureira and speaking with a Lebanese Arabic accent.
Just how many Fateh Islam are here is not clear, but Abu Hureira said they number more than 500. Lebanese military officials said Wednesday they found the body of a man named Abu Madyan, who they said was the group’s second-in-command and had been killed in fighting Monday.
The government appeared to be preparing in case the showdown sparked violence elsewhere in the country. In Beirut, a 90-minute drive south of the camp, military checkpoints have increased at night across the city and its suburbs, stopping vehicles and searching male passengers.
A group claiming to be made up of Palestinians from Lebanon’s largest refugee camp â€” Ain Al Hilweh, in the south â€” posted a statement on a website warning that they would form “jihadi groups” â€” holy warriors â€” to fight alongside Fateh Islam.
Ain Al Hilweh and another camp already saw tyre-burning protests by youths on Tuesday.
Lebanon has 12 Palestinian refugee camps, plagued by poverty and overcrowding, where numerous armed factions are present and Islamic groups have also arisen, some sending fighters to Iraq to join its anti-US insurgency.
The Lebanese military stays out of the camps under a 1969 agreement that allows the Palestinians to run them.
Major Palestinian factions â€” including the mainstream Fateh and Hamas and Islamic Jihad â€” have all distanced themselves from the gunmen in Nahr Bared.
Unlike them, Fateh Islam adheres to Al Qaeda ideology and appears to have a large number of non-Palestinian fighters.
But the factions appeared divided over whether to send their fighters to help the Lebanese military against Fateh Islam.
Sultan Abuleinein, the mainstream Fateh chief in Lebanon, hinted his group might intervene, calling in an interview with Al Arabiya for the “liberation” of NahrÂ Bared from “the plague” of the gunmen.
But Abbas Zaki, the representative of the Palestine Liberation Organisation in Lebanon, denied that the major Palestinian factions supported a Lebanese storming of the camp or that they were willing to join. “Beware of being deceived that there is a decision by Fateh to fight,” he told Al Jazeera television.