Many dead in Lebanon camp battle

123.jpgAt least 19 people have been killed, including three soldiers, after the fiercest fighting in two weeks at the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in northern Lebanon. The Lebanese army advanced its troops on Friday and carried out intense shelling against Fatah al-Islam fighters within the camp. 

 

Smoke billowed from the camp throughout the day. Advancing under a blanket of artillery and tank fire, soldiers overran positions held by members of the group.  Artillery and machine-gun fire shook the camp from early morning to well into the night. At times shells exploded at a rate of 10 a minute.

 

Troops also destroyed sniper nests on the northern and eastern edges of the camp after seizing three key positions. A Lebanese military statement said some fighters had fled the frontline and sought refuge deep in the camp, “taking civilians as human shields”.

 

The army said it was “tightening the noose” and urged Palestinians not to shelter fighters. A statement posted on a website frequently used by al-Qaeda urged fighters in Lebanon to defend Fatah al-Islam.

 

“Islamists, rise up and aid your brothers in Nahr al-Bared. This is your religious duty,” said the statement signed by Mohamed Hakaima, a known Qaeda-linked figure.

  

Residents said they did not have electricity or water, and medical aid personnel were unable to enter the camp.

 

In a show of support by the PLO, he said that what was affecting the Palestinians was also affecting the Lebanese people, and that the PLO was prepared to do all it can to end the violence.

 

Khodr quoted Gahzi al-Aridi, the minister of information, as vowing that the Lebanese army would not be held hostage by Fatah al-Islam fighters.

 

He said the army would have to assess the objectives of this operation. “The area within the camp is small, like matchboxes, and it would not be easy to manoeuvre heavy vehicles.”

 

He said that Lebanese special forces have the necessary expertise, but lack “situational awareness” as they have not been inside the camp before. The Lebanese army has been massing around the camp but has not entered it as part of a 1969 agreement that prevents the army from entering Lebanon’s 12 Palestinian camps.

  

Lebanon’s government stands firm in its position that it wants Fatah al-Islam to surrender, while the fighters refuse to give themselves up, Zeina Khodr said.

 

The conflict is Lebanon’s worst internal fighting since the 1975-1990 civil war. So far it has killed at least 83 people, including 34 soldiers, 29 Fatah al-Islam fighters and 20 civilians.

 

The government is demanding that the men surrender, and the authorities have already charged 20 captured members of the group with “terrorism”. The charges carry the death penalty.

 

Lebanon’s government has given Palestinian leaders in Lebanon a chance to find a way out of the two-week stand-off because it fears the fighting could spread to other refugee camps.

 

More than 25,000 of the Nahr al-Bared’s 40,000 Palestinians have fled to the nearby Badawi camp, where humanitarian organisations have been carrying out relief work.

 

Members of Lebanon’s anti-Syrian cabinet have described Fatah al-Islam of being a tool of Syrian intelligence, though Damascus denies this and says its leader, Shaker al-Abssi, is on Syria’s wanted list.

 

Al-Abssi has said he follows al-Qaeda’s ideology, but has no direct links to Osama bin Laden’s network.

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