Truce Holds, Refugees Flee Lebanon Camp

A Lebanese army soldier, covers his face as he walks next to a Palestinian family fleeing from the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr el-Bared, in the north city of Tripoli, Lebanon, Wednesday May 23, 2007. About 15,000 Palestinian civilians carrying their belongings in plastic bags trickled out of a besieged refugee camp Wednesday after a truce in the fighting mostly held overnight.
AP Photo/Hussein Malla
A senior official of a radical Palestinian faction warned Wednesday that if the Lebanese army launches an assault to wipe out an Islamic militant group barricaded in a Palestinian refugee camp, it would trigger violence in other camps.

The Lebanese government has ordered the army to finish off the Fatah Islam militants who are holed up in the Nahr el-Bared camp, where 31,000 Palestinian refugees live on the outskirts of the northern port of Tripoli. At least 50 combatants have been killed since fighting erupted Sunday.

A truce in the four-day fighting allowed hundreds of Palestinian civilians to flee the besieged refugee camp. But it was unclear how long the truce would hold, and there were fears that allowing civilians out could be a prelude for a major showdown.

CBS News reporter Kristen Gillespie reports that Fatah Islam is allowing the refugees to flee the camp, but its leaders say the group is protecting the civilians inside.

A leader of the Islamic militant group holed up in a besieged Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon is vowing to fight to the death.

The militant, who goes by the name of Abu Hureira, identifies himself as the deputy leader of the group Fatah Islam. He spoke to The Associated Press in the dimly lit basement of a building deep inside the refugee camp.

He says the militants will respect the current cease-fire, but only as long as the Lebanese army keeps its distance. Hureira vows to open fire should the army advance on the camp, saying "they will not enter except over our dead bodies."

The Lebanese government's response came later Wednesday, as Defense Minister Elias Murr said Fatah Islam have a choice: to surrender or face military action.

It has been impossible to get a clear picture of how many civilians may have been killed during the fighting, because journalists have been unable to safely enter the camp.

Reporting from just outside the camp, Gillespie said "every minute or so a bus full of women and children is leaving." She said the windows of buildings surrounding the entrance to the camp have all been blown out, and that thousands of shell casings cover the ground .

Gillespie said one of Fatah Islam's commanders blamed all the bloodshed on the government. He said the Army had shelled houses, mosques and other buildings inside Nahr el-Bared, killing civilians and leaving others wounded. The commander did not give any casualty numbers in his interview with CBS News.

Abu Imad Rifai, the Lebanon representative of the Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad, warned against resorting to a military solution.

"There is a conviction on the part of many (Palestinians) that a military solution cannot lead to results or end the battle once and for all. There should be another mechanism" for a solution, Rifai said in an interview with Hezbollah's Al-Manar television station.

He said during meetings with Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, the government assured it would deal with the Fatah Islam "phenomenon by peaceful means, rather than by a military solution."

"The repercussions and consequences of a military solution will not be confined only to our people in Nahr el-Bared, but it is feared that the cycle of violence will spread to other areas and other camps," Rifai said.

His warning came a day after angry Palestinians burned tires in two other refugee camps in Lebanon to protest the Lebanese army artillery bombardment of the Nahr el-Bared camp, heightening fears that the military's attempt to crush the al Qaeda-inspired Fatah Islam could provoke a broader backlash among hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in the other 11 refugee camps.

Rifai said Fatah Islam was not a Palestinian movement.

"Fatah Islam is an Islamic militant and fundamentalist movement and not a Palestinian movement," he said. "Fatah Islam's members are Lebanese, Syrians, Saudis and Yemenis. This indicates that the ramifications of Fatah Islam are not confined only to Nahr el-Bared."