Blast rocks area near Beirut

A BOMB WENT off near a Christian town north of Beirut on Thursday, in the latest string of explosions that have shaken Lebanon since fighting erupted between army troops and Islamists in a northern refugee camp three weeks ago.

Security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity as they were not authorised to talk to the media, said the blast occurred in an industrial area in the town of Zouk Mousbeh, about 20 kilometres from Beirut and near the Christian town of Jounieh.

The explosion set off large fires in several buildings and black smoke was seen billowing from the area. Ambulances and fire engines raced to the scene, where mangled remains of cars destroyed in the blast lay overturned on the street.

The Lebanese Broadcasting Corp. quoted Lebanese Red Cross officials as saying there were no casualties in the blast.

Four explosions in Beirut and nearby areas have killed one person and wounded 40 others since the clashes between Fateh Islam and Lebanese army troops started May 20 in the Nahr Bared Palestinian refugee camp close to the northern port city of Tripoli.

Lebanon has also been hit by a series of explosions in the last two years, targeting mainly Christian areas and anti-Syrian politicians.

Explosions on May 21 and 22 killed a woman and injured a dozen people in two Beirut neighbourhoods. On May 23, a bomb exploded in the Druze town of Aley in Beirut’s central mountains, wounding at least five people.

Lebanon’s US-backed government blames neighbouring Syria for the explosions, a charge Syria denies.

Meanwhile, Lebanese Islamists on Thursday sought the surrender of Al Qaeda-inspired gunmen locked in deadly battles with troops at a Palestinian refugee camp, but the group said it would not give itself up. Two members of Lebanon’s Islamic Action Front, which includes Sunni politicians and clerics, went to the Nahr Bared camp for talks with Fateh Islam’s military commander Shahin Shahin, the front’s leader Fathi Yakan said.

“They [Fateh Islam] have reached a dead end. They can only surrender,” Yakan told Reuters in the city of Tripoli, just south of Nahr Bared.

“The only thing that will convince them is Sharia [Islamic law], and religious reason.” Yakan, head of the group which is close to Lebanon’s opposition, said the delegation had not yet met a negotiator from Fateh Islam and did not expect a result immediately.

Another Fateh Islam military commander, Abu Hurayra, reiterated the group would not surrender.

“We are with any solution that halts the attacks and the bloodshed… but we will not accept any surrendering of weapons or ourselves,” he told Reuters from inside the camp.

Previous efforts by Palestinian leaders to broker a solution have failed to end the fighting, which began on May 20.

The battles are Lebanon’s deadliest internal violence since the 1975-1990 civil war.

Security sources said a Lebanese soldier was killed on Thursday, bringing to 115 the total death toll, including 47 soldiers and 38 gunmen. Three soldiers were also wounded.

In the squalid Nahr Bared camp, abandoned by most of its 40,000 residents, soldiers used artillery and machineguns against Fateh Islam’s positions in sporadic fighting.

A Reuters witness said Lebanese soldiers took about 20 men, blindfolded and handcuffed, away from the southern entrance of the camp. There was no immediate information on their identities.

The army and the government say Fateh Islam started the conflict and have repeatedly called for its men to lay down their arms and surrender, demands the group has rejected.

“The blood of the martyred soldiers is a deposit around the neck of the army which will not rest before the criminals are arrested and taken to justice,” Army Commander General Michel Suleiman said at the wake of a fallen soldier.

The authorities charged three more members of Fateh Islam with terrorism on Thursday, bringing to 30 the total indicted, judicial sources said. The charges carry the death penalty.

The violence is the latest jolt to stability in Lebanon, already in the midst of a seven-month-old political crisis.

Four bombs have also exploded in the Beirut area, killing one person and wounding dozens, since the Nahr Bared fighting began. Security forces also found a car bomb in eastern Lebanon and two other vehicles containing weapons and explosives, including four Katyusha rockets.

The cars were found in Bar Elias village just west of the border with Syria in the Bekaa Valley, a day after the forces arrested, in the same area, three suspected Al Qaeda members in possession of weapons and explosives. Two more suspects were later detained.

In Ain Hilweh, Lebanon’s largest refugee camp, a 40-member force made of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fateh group and three Islamist factions remained deployed at the camp’s northern entrance, after clashes broke out between the army and the Jund Sham group earlier this week.

Two soldiers and two gunmen were killed in firefights that erupted on Sunday in Ain Hilweh, raising fears the fighting in Nahr Bared, could further spread to other camps.

Palestinian factions, including Fateh and the Islamist Hamas group, oppose Fateh Islam, which shares Al Qaeda’s ideology of global jihad and recruits fighters from other Arab countries.

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