Palestinians seek to end camp siege

Palestinian groups worked on Monday to end the six-week-old battle in a besieged refugee camp of north Lebanon, as aid workers continued to seek access to trapped civilians.The factions, in an initiative led by the mainstream Fateh, were trying to assemble a force to restore security to the once sleepy seafront camp of Nahr Bared turned into a war zone between Arab Islamists and Lebanese soldiers.

Mesbah Ahdab, a pro-government MP for the nearby port city of Tripoli, called on any such force to hand over the Fateh Islam holdouts to the army, which is demanding their surrender to Lebanese authorities to face trial.

“The only solution is one of the two choices: either the legitimate Palestinian forces or the Lebanese state,” said Ahdab.

In the south Lebanon refugee camp of Ain Al Hilweh, Fateh official Munir Maqdah told AFP that a 300-strong Palestinian force was to be formed to restore security in Nahr Bared where the clashes broke out on May 20.

However, the Lebanese military declined to comment on the plan which would need its approval.

And there was also no confirmation from other Palestinian factions of an agreement with Fateh on the role of such a force or whether it would confront Fateh Islam.

An LBC television crew managed to gain access to Nahr Bared and ran fresh footage of the destruction in its northern sector, from which the diehard Fateh Islam has been forced to pull back. Shell-pocked upper floors of two- to four-storey buildings stood next to mounds of rubble. Homes had collapsed like packs of cards, leaving behind low cinderblock walls which were apparently used for cover by gunmen.

According to Sultan Abul Aynain, the Fateh chief for Lebanon, 42 Saudis have been fighting in Fateh Islam’s ranks. Twenty have been killed, one has surrendered, and another 21 are still holed up inside the camp, he told AFP.

Correspondents on Monday reported only sporadic exchanges of gunfire between soldiers and the remaining Islamists, who the army now estimates at just “a few dozen”, holed up in the older southern sector of Nahr Bared.

“The people are asking for freshwater and bread. No matter how many civilians are left, we are committed to helping them,” said Virginia de la Guardia, a spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

Fewer than 1,000 of its original population of 31,000 are believed to remain in Nahr Bared, having taken advantage of lulls in the deadly fighting to flee.

De la Guardia said estimates for the number of Palestinian refugees still cowering in their Nahr Bared homes varied and were unreliable.

“The humanitarian situation is getting worse and worse,” she said, pointing out that the ICRC, which has been coordinating relief operations with the Palestine Red Crescent, had not been allowed access for more than 10 days.

But the army said it was ready to provide access. “There is every cooperation from the military. There is no problem for relief work,” a spokesman said.

According to a count compiled from official figures, the fighting has now claimed at least 170 lives, including 85 soldiers, in and around Nahr Bared. The toll does not include the corpses of fighters abandoned in the camp.

Lebanon on Monday deployed 300 internal security force (ISF) men on its northern border with Syria, ISF chief General Ashraf Rifi said.

“The army asked us to help strengthen the observation posts on the border between north Lebanon and Syria, stretching 100 kilometres, and to prevent smuggling,” he told AFP.

The United Nations said on June 26 that international security experts should be deployed to help Lebanon stop arms smuggling from Syria, which has closed all but the main border crossing, citing the Nahr Bared fighting.

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