- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 20, 2007

TRIPOLI, Lebanon — Lebanese army tanks pounded a shadowy group suspected of ties to al Qaeda yesterday, targeting its hide-outs inside a Palestinian refugee camp after hours of clashes killed at least 22 soldiers and 17 militants.

The violence between the army and the Fatah Islam group erupted in the northern port city of Tripoli and the adjacent Nahr el-Bared refugee camp. It added further instability to a country already mired in its worst political crisis between the Western-backed government and Hezbollah-led opposition since the end of the 1975-90 Lebanese civil war.

It was the most serious fight engaged in by the Lebanese army in more than a decade and the worst violence to hit Tripoli in two decades.

The clashes between army troops surrounding the camp and Fatah Islam fighters began after a gunbattle in a neighborhood in Tripoli, a predominantly Sunni city known to have Islamic fundamentalists, witnesses said.

Fighting spread after police raided suspected Fatah Islam hide-outs in several buildings in Tripoli, searching for men wanted in a recent bank robbery. A gunbattle ensued, and troops were called in to help the police.

Militants then burst out of the refugee camp, seizing Lebanese army positions, capturing two armored vehicles and ambushing troops. They killed two soldiers on roads leading to the city.

Smoke billowed from the camp as a steady barrage of artillery and heavy machine-gun fire from army positions pounded militant positions inside.

Hundreds of Lebanese applauded the army’s tough response in a sign of the long-standing tensions that remain between some Lebanese and the estimated 350,000 Palestinians who have taken refuge in Lebanon since the creation of Israel in 1948.

At the same time, a group of militants holed up in a building in Tripoli fought off army and police units for hours. Security forces were able to quell the resistance after sundown, and troops seized all positions around the refugee camp late yesterday, the army said.

In Beirut late yesterday, an explosion across the street from a busy shopping mall killed a 63-year-old woman and injured 12 persons in the Christian sector of the Lebanese capital, police said. The bomb left a crater about 4 feet deep and 9 feet wide

The Lebanese Broadcasting Corp. reported that the dead included men from Bangladesh, Yemen and other Arab countries.

Abu Salim, a spokesman for Fatah Islam in Nahr el-Bared, said on television that the militants were firing in self-defense.

Security officials said 22 soldiers were killed and 19 were injured along with 14 police officers who were hurt.

They said 10 militants were killed in the raids in Tripoli, and seven more were killed in the refugee camp.

A senior Lebanese security official said a high-ranking member of Fatah Islam, known as Abu Yazan, was among those killed.

Fatah Islam is an offshoot of the pro-Syria Fatah al-Intifada, which broke from the mainstream Palestinian Fatah movement in the early 1980s and has headquarters in Syria, Lebanese officials say.

Fatah Islam is thought to be led by Shaker Youssef al-Absi, a Palestinian who was sentenced to death in absentia in July 2004 by a Jordanian military court after being convicted of conspiracy in a plot that led to the assassination in Jordan of U.S. diplomat Laurence Foley. Al Qaeda in Iraq and its former leader Abu Musab Zarqawi are blamed for the killing.

Some Lebanese security officials consider Fatah Islam a radical Sunni Muslim group with ties to al Qaeda or at least al Qaeda-style militancy and doctrine. Others say they are a front for Syrian military intelligence aiming to destabilize Lebanon.

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