Gunfire Interrupts Lebanon Truce

A Lebanese soldier gestures to photographers not to take pictures as he advances to enter inside the Nahr el-Bared refugee camp near the city of Tripoli in Lebanon Thursday, May 24, 2007.
AP Photo/Ben Curtis
Heavy gunfire exchanges briefly interrupted a two-day-old truce late Thursday between Lebanese troops besieging a Palestinian refugee camp and Islamic militants holed up inside.

The renewed fighting on the northern edge of the Nahr el-Bared camp appeared so far limited to exchanges, which lasted 20 minutes before tapering off into sporadic gunfire. There was no sign that the troops positioned on the camp's edge were making any move to enter. Until sundown Thursday, only sporadic gunfire marred the truce.

Security officials said army positions came under heavy machine gun fire from Fatah Islam gunmen followed by rocket-propelled grenades, so the army "dealt" with the source of fire. The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press, said the army will not initiate fire but will respond to attack.

Earlier in the day, the Lebanese army moved troops around the Nahr el-Bared camp but did not attempt to advance, apparently giving time for negotiations and for the militants to comply with a government ultimatum to surrender or face a military assault.

One of the army's main fears, says CBS News reporter Kristen Gillespie, is that the Fatah Islam militants will be waiting for them inside the camp wearing suicide vests and belts — willing to die before being arrested and hoping to take Lebanese soldiers' lives with them.

The aim of the troop movements outside the camp, the security officials told The Associated Press, was to provide better protection for troops in exposed positions.

Abu Salim Taha, spokesman for the militants, said on al-Jazeera television from inside the camp that the army opened fire and that the fighters remain committed to the truce.

The renewed exchanges came as both sides dug in their positions — the government determined to root out the militants and the fighters refusing to surrender.

Prime Minister Fuad Saniora vowed in a speech Thursday to wipe out the militants barricaded in the camp, raising the prospect that the Lebanese army will either storm the camp, in what would likely be a bloody battle, or dig in for a long siege to force their surrender.

Fighters from the al Qaeda-inspired Fatah Islam militant group, estimated in the hundreds, saying they will fight off any Lebanese attack.

Taha repeated Fatah Islam will never surrender or flee. "This is impossible. We will fight till the last moment, the last drop of blood and the last bullet," he said.

He added that mediation by major Palestinian factions has not proven successful.

The fighting between the army and the militants, which broke out Sunday, has killed some 50 combatants and many civilians. Thousands of Palestinian civilians, mainly women and children, have fled the camp on the outskirts of this northern port city, but many thousands remain inside.

Most of the thousands of Palestinian refugees who have fled the Nahr el-Bared camp since the truce took hold Tuesday packed into the nearby Beddawi refugee camp, lining up at U.N.-run schools and clinics with registration cards hoping to get food and mattresses. The camp's six schools were overflowing with refugees who said that up to 50 people were sleeping in each class room.

Amid media reports of Muslim clerics negotiating with the militants to avert an army onslaught, Lebanon's government appeared to be preparing the grounds for a showdown, including the possible storming of the camp. The Lebanese military stays out of the camps under a 1969 agreement that allows the Palestinians to run them.

(AP Photo/Ahmad Omar)
Saniora, left, said in a TV address Thursday that Fatah Islam was "a terrorist organization" and blamed the group for "attempting to ride on the suffering and the struggle of the Palestinian people."

"We will work to root out and strike at terrorism, but we will embrace and protect our brothers in the camps," Saniora said, insisting Lebanon has no quarrel with the 400,000 Palestinian refugees who live in the country.

Storming the Nahr el-Bared camp — a densely built-up town of narrow streets on the Mediterranean coast — could mean rough urban fighting for Lebanese troops and further death and destruction for the thousands of civilians who remain inside.

It could also spark unrest in Lebanon's 11 other Palestinian refugee camps. Although Palestinian factions have dissociated themselves from Fatah Islam, refugees in other camps, which are rife with armed groups, were seething with anger over the army bombardments that have partially destroyed Nahr el-Bared.

Gillespie reports refugees who fled the camp have given horrifying accounts of the living conditions inside. She was told of bodies laying in the streets, a lack of fresh water leading to deplorable sanitation, and militants confiscating medicine sent in by relief agencies.

In a sign of the danger, a bomb exploded Wednesday night in the Aley mountain resort overlooking Beirut, a 90-minute drive south of Nahr el-Bared. The blast, which injured 16 people, was the third in the Beirut area since Sunday. One person has been killed and a dozen injured in the two other attacks.

Fatah Islam has denied responsibility for the bombings, but it had threatened to take the battle outside Tripoli if the army attacks.

A senior army official disclosed Thursday that troops had sunk two small boats carrying Fatah Islam militants who tried to flee from the camp on Tuesday via the sea. The official said all passengers on the two dinghies were killed, but did not specify how many had died.

But Taha, the militant spokesman, denied that. "Fatah Islam does not own any boat, so how can those boats be destroyed?"