- The Washington Times - Monday, May 21, 2007

11:51 a.m.

TRIPOLI, Lebanon (AP) — Lebanese troops pounded a Palestinian refugee camp with artillery and tank fire for a second day today, raising huge palls of smoke as they battled a militant group suspected of ties to al Qaeda in the worst eruption of violence since the end of the 1975-90 civil war.

Nearly 50 combatants were killed in the first day of fighting yesterday, but it was not known how many civilians had been killed inside the Nahr el-Bared camp on the outskirts of the northern port city of Tripoli, the scene of the worst violence.

Palestinian officials in the camp reported that at least nine civilians were killed today and 40 wounded. The figures could not be confirmed because emergency workers or security officials have not been able to get in.

Black smoke engulfed the skies over the camp as fires raged and heavy gunfire and explosions rang out constantly. The fierce fighting resumed after a brief truce that allowed the evacuation of 18 wounded civilians, according to Saleh Badran, an official with the Palestinian Red Crescent Society.

The battle was an unprecedented showdown between the Lebanese army and militant groups that have arisen in Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camps, which are home to tens of thousands of people living amid poverty and crime and which Lebanese troops are not allowed to enter.

The troops were fighting a group called Fatah Islam, whose leader has said he is inspired by al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and was training militants to carry out attacks in other countries. Lebanese officials also have accused Syria of using Fatah Islam to stir up trouble in Lebanon, a charge Damascus has denied.

Lebanese officials said one of the men killed yesterday was a suspect in a failed German train bombing — another indication the camp had become a refuge for Fatah Islam militants planning attacks outside of Lebanon. In the past, others affiliated with the group in the camp have said they were aiming to send trained fighters into Iraq, and the group’s leader has been linked to al Qaeda in Iraq.

Hundreds of Lebanese army troops, backed by tanks and armored carriers, surrounded the refugee camp today. M-48 battle tanks unleashed their cannon fire on the camp, home to 30,000 Palestinian refugees. The militants fired mortars toward the troops at daybreak.

An army officer at the front line said troops directed concentrated fire at buildings known to house militants in the camp. He said troops also had orders to strike hard at any target that directed fire back at them.

“Everything we know that they were present in has been targeted,” he told Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.

A spokesman for Fatah Islam, Abu Salim, warned that if the army bombardment did not stop, the militants would step up attacks by rockets and artillery and would “take the battle outside Tripoli.”

He did not elaborate on the threat, holding authorities responsible for the consequences.

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