Lebanese officials said one of the men killed in Sunday's fighting was a suspect in a failed German train bombing — a new sign that the camp had become a refuge for militants planning attacks outside of Lebanon. In the past, others in the camp have said they were aiming to send trained fighters into Iraq.
Saddam El-Hajdib was the fourth-highest ranking official in the Fatah Islam group, an official said Monday, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media. El-Hajdib had been on trial in absentia in Lebanon in connection with the failed German plot and is the brother of another suspect in custody in Germany.
Meanwhile, another attack in a Christian neighborhood of Beirut late Sunday raised fears of growing instability across Lebanon.
The violence between the army and the Fatah Islam group in the northern port city of Tripoli and the adjacent Nahr el-Bared refugee camp has killed at least 27 soldiers and 20 militants, security officials said Monday.
The clashes are a significant blow to a country already mired in a dire political crisis between the Western-backed government and Hezbollah-led opposition.
Little is known about the ideology and backing of the Fatah Islam group. Some officials in Lebanon believe it has ties to al Qaeda, and the group has said it follows an al Qaida ideology. But other Lebanese officials claim it is simply a Syrian-backed group sent by Damascus to destabilize the country after Syria's forced withdrawal from Lebanon in April 2005.
Hundreds of troops, backed by tanks and armored carriers, surrounded the camp early Monday, as black smoke billowed into the air. The militants responded at daybreak by firing back with mortars.
The clashes between army troops surrounding the camp and Fatah Islam fighters began Sunday after a gun battle raged in a neighborhood in Tripoli, a predominantly Sunni city known to have Islamic militants, witnesses said.
The bomb left a crater about 4 feet deep and 9 feet wide, and police said the explosives were estimated to weigh 22 pounds. The blast — heard across the city — gutted cars, set vehicles ablaze and shattered store and apartment windows.
Beirut and surrounding suburbs have seen a series of explosions in the last two years, many targeting Christian areas. Authorities blamed Fatah Islam for Feb. 13 bombings of commuter buses that killed three people, but the group denied involvement.
Syria has denied involvement in any of the bombings, but Lebanon's national police commander Maj. Gen. Ashraf Rifi said Sunday that Damascus was using the Fatah Islam group as a covert way to wreak havoc in the country, with people assuming it's al Qaeda.
"Perhaps there are some deluded people among them but they are not al Qaeda. This is imitation al Qaeda, a 'Made in Syria' one," he told The Associated Press.
The Lebanese Broadcasting Corp. TV station reported Sunday that among the dead militants were men from Bangladesh, Yemen and other Arab countries, underlining the group's reach outside of Lebanon.
A senior Lebanese security official said a high-ranking member of Fatah Islam, known as Abu Yazan, was among those killed.
Hundreds of Lebanese applauded the army's tough response in the refugee camp in a sign of the long-standing tensions that remain between some Lebanese and the estimated 350,000 Palestinians who have taken refuge in Lebanon since the creation of Israel in 1948.
Prime Minister Fuad Saniora said the fighting was a "dangerous attempt at hitting Lebanese security." Mainstream Sunni Muslim leaders, clerics and politicians threw their support behind the army, as did the Palestine Liberation Organization representative in Lebanon.
It also underlined the difficulty authorities have in trying to defeat the country's armed groups which control pockets across Lebanon.
Fatah Islam is an offshoot of the pro-Syrian Fatah Uprising, which broke from the mainstream Palestinian Fatah movement in the early 1980s and has headquarters in Syria, Lebanese officials say.
It is believed to be led by Shaker Youssef al-Absi, a Palestinian who was sentenced to death in absentia in July 2004 by a Jordanian military court for conspiring in a plot that led to the assassination in Jordan of U.S. diplomat Laurence Foley. Al Qaeda in Iraq and its former leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi were blamed for the killing.