Soldier dies in sporadic fighting at besieged Lebanon camp

157.jpgBEIRUT (AP) — Heavy clashes between the army and Al Qaeda-linked gunmen broke a weeklong truce Tuesday as Lebanon’s government stressed its determination to defeat the group but said it was willing to give mediation a chance to end the fighting at a Palestinian refugee camp.Lebanese army artillery pounded positions on the northern edge of the camp and near the Mediterranean coastline, apparently seeking to prevent any attempt by some gunmen to flee, reporters at the scene said. One rocket apparently fired from Fateh Islam gunmen in the camp started a fire on the edge of the camp.

Orange flames and white smoke shot up from at least two locations in the camp, according to television footage. Sporadic gunfire exchanges have continued daily since the truce halted three days of heavy fighting. But the renewed fighting that began before sundown and lasted 11⁄2 hours was the worst outbreak in violence in a week. During the clashes, the Lebanese army used artillery to silence the gunmen’s source of fire.

US-backed Prime Minister Fuad Siniora vowed to defeat the gunmen.

“We cannot afford to bargain. We cannot compromise on the issue of terrorism,” he said in a statement before the renewed fighting broke out.

Three days of fighting beginning May 20 have given way to a tense standoff between the army and Fateh Islam gunmen who are holed up in the northern Lebanese Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr Bared.

The army has rolled hundreds of soldiers, backed by tanks and armoured carriers, in place to storm the camp, where hundreds of fighters remain along with several thousand Palestinian civilians.

But the likelihood of brutal house-to-house fighting in the crowded camp has apparently prompted the government to take a step back to give Palestinian factions and Muslim clerics an opportunity to try to talk the gunmen into surrendering. Fateh Islam leaders have said they will never surrender and would rather die fighting.

Siniora signalled that the government’s patience was wearing thin, but it still hoped for a peaceful solution.

“A state cannot be run by indecision. We are giving the opportunity to all attempts until all possible solutions are exhausted,” he said.

Mediators from major Palestinian factions have been pressing for a negotiated solution. The standoff has raised concerns of more violence across Lebanon, which has a total of 12 Palestinian refugee camps where armed movements are rampant.

Security officials said Tuesday that one Lebanese army soldier died in fighting around Nahr Bared. The soldier was hit by sniper fire on Monday and died from his injuries Tuesday, said the officials, who spoke on customary condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to speak to the press.

His death brings to 31 the number of troops killed since fighting erupted more than a week ago. An estimated 20 civilians and about 60 gunmen also have been killed.

Thousands of Palestinians have fled the camp but some have remained inside.

At the nearby Beddawi Palestinian refugee camp, where thousands from Nahr  Bared have fled, some 200 angry refugees staged a protest Tuesday demanding they be allowed to return to their homes.

They burned cardboard boxes, and some shouting “Allahu Akbar”, or God is Great, tried to march to their former homes but were stopped by Lebanese troops.

Beirut has not been immune from the violence. Four bomb blasts have hit the Beirut area since the fighting near Tripoli began, killing one woman and injuring about 30 others.

Another woman died from gunshot wounds to the abdomen early Tuesday when a car she was riding in ignored orders to stop at a police checkpoint in Beirut, officials said.

On Monday, troops killed two car passengers and a passerby after the vehicle sped past their checkpoint outside the Beirut International Airport, officials said.

Police on Tuesday also detained a man suspected of belonging to Fateh Islam in a Christian neighbourhood of Beirut. Officials said police seized forged passports and several CD-ROMs and other material that appeared to be related to the group’s work.

Interior Minister Hassan Sabei urged the public Tuesday to cooperate with security forces “in this critical period”.

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