Refugees recall shadowy Fateh Islam guerrillas

BEDDAWI (AFP) —  With their long beards, Pakistani-style clothes and brand new weapons, the Fateh Islam guerrillas have long spread fear among Palestinian refugees in an embattled camp in northern Lebanon.

Those who have fled the Nahr Bared camp since the Lebanese army began tracking down the extremists on Sunday tell of the secretive Islamists who never worked but had financial means unavailable to others.

“They stayed on their own, at the northern periphery of the camp,” said Ahmad Yacine, a 45-year-old refugee now living at a school turned into a centre for the displaced at Beddawi camp, near to Nahr Bared.

“They spoke very little, read the Koran. We hesitated to speak to them,” he said.

Fateh Islam is a shadowy Sunni Muslim extremist group which first officially appeared in Lebanon in November. It is not a Palestinian group, although it has established its base in Nahr Bared. Most of its members are Islamists of varying Arab nationalities.

Yacine said that since the autumn they spent generously on houses, apartments and land in a secluded neighbourhood between the plantations and the Mediterranean shores.

“They did not establish checkpoints, but staged foot patrols. They had new weapons, not the common ones … they had Kalashnikovs, and even small M16s, Belgian rifles or weird-looking rocket-launchers,” he said.

Other refugees displaced from Nahr Bared said most of the Islamists wore long, Pakistani-style tunics and had long hair and beards. Their faces were often hidden behind cloths. The guerrillas rode motorcycles to patrol the narrow alleys of  the camp.

“Their women are completely veiled, with black gloves. They put blankets on their windows so that they can never been seen. Their children do not go to school,” said Ahmad Abdullah, 31.

Abdullah said Lebanese army intelligence, which keep close watch on the camps from positions around the area, “knew very well who they were and where they were.”

By longstanding convention, the Lebanese army does not enter the country’s 12 Palestinian refugee camps, leaving security there to Palestinian militant groups. Army soldiers are deployed around the camp and control entrances.

“For months, the guerrillas walked in and out of the camp freely,” Abdullah said.

“Then, in February, we noticed that things were turning badly because the army had reinforced its positions and the guys from Fateh Islam were not leaving their neighbourhood anymore and were building fortifications,” he said.

Ali Khatib, 45, said the Islamists never worked “but they had a lot of money: They used to buy without bargaining. They bought meat in kilos, chicken, and four-wheel-drive vehicles.”

“For the Eid feast, they sacrificed several sheep, and offered the meat to all the neighbourhood,” said Khatib, adding: “As for us, we had to gather three families to buy one sheep.”

“The mood soured when the Islamists started to harass alcohol drinkers and women not wearing the veil,”  he said.

“One day, they came and kidnapped a guy. He swore that they took him to their place where they beat him before setting him free,” he said.

“The guy came back, in arms and with his brothers and cousins. This triggered an armed clash which forced schools to close for two days,” he said.

The witnesses said Fateh Islam had chosen to stay at the periphery of the camp in order to avoid a clash with armed Palestinian factions.

“In the centre of the camp, it would not have been allowed by the Fateh of (late Palestinian leader Yasser) Arafat or by (the Islamist Palestinian movement) Hamas,” Shawki El Hajj, 40, said.

“But even if they were not very numerous, they still scared everyone. There were some Palestinians among them, but there were also foreigners, such as Saudis and Yemenis who had fought against the Americans in Iraq,” he said.

“They were not like the ‘Shabeb’ [young men] of Fateh who carry Kalashnikovs, but never did anything but guarded the camp gates and fired into the air,” he said.

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