NEW YORK — The U.N. agency that oversees the Nahr el-Bared refugee camp in northern Lebanon, the scene of three days of battles between Lebanese troops and Muslim militants, said yesterday it had been aware for months that heavily armed foreigners were moving into the Palestinian enclave but were helpless to stop them.
The extremists of Fatah Islam, who local reports say hail from Syria, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Bangladesh, apparently entered the camp, just north of Tripoli, several months ago. They are thought to have arrived in a group, not individually.
Officials of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) could not say how a large band of foreigners carrying what has been described as mortars, rockets, explosive belts and other heavy weapons were able get past the Lebanese army soldiers stationed outside the camp.
They also could not explain why militias of young Palestinian men who provide security and gather intelligence throughout Nahr el-Bared and other Palestinian areas allowed foreign fighters to settle there.
“Somebody hasn’t been doing their job,” said Karen Koning AbuZayd, commissioner-general of UNRWA. “The problem with refugee camps in Lebanon is that they are self-policed. … This group showed up a few months ago. As far as we know, it is mainly a foreign group.
“The Palestinian refugees themselves have been very unhappy about it and have been trying to persuade them to leave,” Mrs. AbuZayd told reporters.
Yesterday, Lebanon’s defense minister issued an ultimatum to Islamic militants barricaded in the camp to surrender or face a military onslaught.
Also yesterday, refugees continued to leave Nahr el-Bared as a tense cease-fire held. Some piled onto the backs of pickup trucks or stuffed themselves into battered sedans.
Many joined relatives in the nearby Badawi refugee camp, while others made their way to nearby Tripoli.
UNRWA has 200 Palestinian employees inside the camp, mostly teachers, medical staff and aid workers who help distribute supplies.
Mrs. AbuZayd said she was surprised that many of the camp’s 30,000 inhabitants didn’t leave before fighting erupted Sunday.
On Tuesday, thousands of refugees took advantage of a pause in fighting to escape.
“UNRWA couldn’t do anything because the United Nations is not responsible for policing or administering the camps, only their own installations inside them,” Mrs. AbuZayd said.
Security inside Lebanon’s 12 Palestinian refugee camps has always been a sensitive issue.
Lebanese police and soldiers are not permitted to enter the camps but maintain a perimeter, as much to protect the Lebanese as to protect the Palestinians from outside threat.