Lebanon lays terror charges against Islamists

172.jpgNAHR BARED (AFP) — Lebanon laid terror charges against Al Qaeda inspired gunmen Wednesday as sporadic gunbattles flared between the Islamists and the army on the 18th day of a deadly standoff.

A military prosecutor indicted 11 men from Fateh Islam for “acts of terrorism” — a charge that risks the death penalty — bringing to 31 the total charged since the gunbattles first erupted, most of them Lebanese.

The court action came as fighting continued intermittently throughout the day between besieging troops and Fateh Islam gunmen holed up inside the Nahr Bared refugee camp on the shores of the Mediterranean in north Lebanon.

“Now there is only sporadic shooting, and the army continues to tighten the noose and reinforce its positions around the camp,” a military spokesman said.

The gunmen have been able to resist the army’s superior fire power, although the mainstream Palestinian Fateh faction reported that the resolve of the gunmen was weakening and some were surrendering.

The clashes erupted on May 20 around Nahr Bared and the nearby port city of Tripoli, rapidly deteriorating into the deadliest internal fighting Lebanon has seen since the civil war.

Security has also been shaken by a series of bomb blasts in and around Beirut and on Wednesday police said a bomb was defused on a road leading to popular beaches in the southern port city of Tyre, a stronghold of Shiite groups.

Fateh’s leader in Lebanon, Sultan Abu Aynayn, said three gunmen had surrendered on Tuesday and that 18 others said they had stopped shooting and were seeking guarantees to turn themselves in, leaving about 75 gunmen still fighting.

There was no confirmation from the Islamist group, which has vowed to fight “until the last drop of blood.” “We have information that there were some elements which gave themselves up, but the army has not received any of them,” an army spokesman said. “We have information that some elements have also dropped their arms and left the fight, as many of them are in poor spirits.

Aid groups have voiced concern about the humanitarian situation in Nahr Bared where the fighting was obstructing supplies to the more than 3,000 refugees out of the original 31,000 inhabitants still remaining.

The International Committee of the Red Cross warned that the refugees face a new threat from unexploded munitions which were also obstructing relief aid.

In all, 108 people have been killed in 18 days of unrest that has exacerbated tensions in a deeply-divided country already in the grip of an acute political crisis.

It is the deadliest internal fighting in Lebanon since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war, although there have been much higher death tolls since in a series of Israeli offensives against Lebanon.

On Wednesday, Lebanon marked the anniversary of the launch of Israel’s fullscale invasion of its northern neighbour in 1982 to root out fighters of the Palestine Liberation Organisation.

Fears unrest could spread through other camps were fuelled when deadly fighting broke out Sunday at the Ain Al Hilweh camp between the army and another shadowy group known as Jund Sham, or Soldiers of Damascus.

But the situation remains calm around Ain Al Hilweh and on Wednesday a joint force from factions of the PLO, pro-Syrian groups and Islamist movements deployed in the northern sector of the camp where the clashes took place.

The escalation of violence has prompted Washington to pledge more supplies to the Lebanese army after Congress last month approved a seven-fold increase in military assistance for 2007 to $280 million.

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