- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 22, 2007

NAHR EL-BARED, Lebanon — Battles engulfed a Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon yesterday in the second day of fighting between the Lebanese army and al Qaeda-inspired militants that has killed at least 79 persons.

Black smoke billowed from the Nahr el-Bared camp, home to 40,000 Palestinians, as tanks shelled positions held by Fatah Islam fighters hitting back with machine-gun and grenade fire.

In the Lebanese capital, Beirut, a bomb rocked a shopping area in the mainly Sunni Muslim district of Verdun, wounding at least seven persons, security sources and witnesses said.

Fighting subsided in the afternoon in an attempt to allow an aid convoy into the coastal camp in northern Lebanon, but clashes resumed before the U.N. and Red Cross vehicles could move in.

Prime Minister Fuad Siniora’s government, at a meeting yesterday to discuss the fighting, stressed the need “to put an end” to Fatah Islam, Information Minister Ghazi Aridi said.

The decision was made after a representative of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad group told Reuters a truce had been agreed to, although sporadic gunfire could still be heard into the night.

The violence showed how fragile security remains in Lebanon, racked by political and sectarian tensions since last year’s Israeli-Hezbollah war in the south and by a series of unsolved assassinations before and after Syria’s 2005 troop pullout.

The conflict is Lebanon’s worst internal violence since the 1975-90 civil war.

Palestinians in the camp said thousands had fled their homes on the edges of Nahr el-Bared, where fighting was most intense, to shelter deeper inside the camp. More than 150 people had been wounded and dozens of homes destroyed, Palestinian sources said.

“We are under siege,” Hisham Yacoub said by telephone from within the camp. “There’s no water, no electricity or milk for the children,” said Mohammed Abu Laila, also talking by phone from the camp.

Abu Salim, a spokesman for Fatah Islam, threatened to take the fighting to other parts of the country if the army did not ease its bombardment. “If the situation stays like this, we will not be silent and will definitely move the battle outside [the nearby city] of Tripoli,” he told Reuters by telephone.

At least 20 militants, 32 soldiers and 27 civilians have been killed since the fighting erupted early on Sunday. Fifty-five soldiers have been wounded.

The United States, which firmly backs the Beirut government, said Lebanon was justified in attacking the militants.

“Extremists that are trying to topple that young democracy need to be reined in,” President Bush said yesterday. “Certainly, we abhor the violence where innocents die. And it’s a sad state of affairs when you’ve got this young democracy in Lebanon being pressured by outside forces.”

Fatah Islam, a Sunni Muslim group that emerged late last year, has only a few hundred fighters and scant political support in Lebanon. Based in Nahr el-Bared, it is thought to have links with jihadist factions in other Palestinian camps.

A security source said Lebanese security forces had detained 20 members of the group, including Saudis, Algerians and a Tunisian.

Rival Lebanese factions have condemned the attacks on the army, which is carefully constructed to reflect the country’s mosaic of sects.

Palestine Liberation Organization representative Abbas Zaki said after talks with Mr. Siniora that the camps housing 400,000 Palestinian refugees, a legacy of the Arab-Israeli war of 1948, should not be “the spark that starts a civil war.”

Yesterday’s blast appeared to mirror an explosion on Sunday that killed one woman in the mainly Christian east of the capital. At least 10 persons were wounded by flying glass.

Under a 1969 Arab accord, Lebanon’s army may not enter the refugee camps, leaving a security vacuum filled by Palestinian factions.

Palestinian guerrillas established bases in Lebanon in the late 1960s and took part in the civil war that erupted in 1975.

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