- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 22, 2007

TRIPOLI, Lebanon — Thousands of Palestinians streamed out of a refugee camp waving scraps of white clothing yesterday, taking advantage of a pause in violence after three days of fighting that killed dozens of people.

The escaping refugees, caught in a punishing bombardment from the Lebanese army as it battles the radical group Fatah Islam, described grim scenes of dead and dying civilians and fighters on the street and an attack on a U.N. convoy carrying aid.

By the end of the day, The Washington Times was able to confirm the deaths of at least 30 Lebanese army soldiers, 18 militants and 19 civilians over the three days of fighting. News agencies reported as many as 81 dead in what army and Palestinian sources described as the worst violence to hit Lebanon since the end of its 1975-90 civil war.

A civil defense worker in charge of collecting bodies, who gave his name only as Mazen, said there were “lots of bodies” just inside the northern entrance to the camp where Fatah Islam, a radical jihadist group with an al Qaeda-inspired ideology and suspected ties to Syria, was resisting hundreds of Lebanese troops.

For the past three days, the Fatah Islam fighters have held out as the army hammered them with 155 mm mortars, .50-caliber machine guns and tanks.

Khoder Taleb, 36, the regional manager for the civil defense forces, said Fatah Islam had “hundreds” of fighters in the camp, many of them foreigners. Two burned bodies lying just inside the camp carried Bangladeshi identity papers, he said, but the claim could not be confirmed.

One refugee whose home outside the camp had been taken over by militants said the men’s accents indicated some were natives of Saudi Arabia, Yemen or Sudan.

The gunmen told him: “We won’t leave unless we’re dead,” said Ali Said Mearbani, who described a terrifying night with his children huddled around him while shells fell nearby.

Around midday, a seven-truck U.N. convoy loaded with food, water, medicine and generators rolled up to the Nahr el-Bared camp, which has been cut off from outside supplies since the fighting started.

Security officers postponed entering the area until a cease-fire could be arranged, but the wait was in vain. When the trucks finally entered the camp in late afternoon, they came under attack while being unloaded.

Robin Cook, Lebanon director for the U.N. relief agency in Lebanon, said three trucks were disabled and had to be abandoned.

At one point, dozens of young men from the surrounding area broke out in cheers as Lebanese troops approached the camp entrance. Atop their armored personnel carriers, the soldiers grinned and flashed victory signs.

The fighting reflects long-simmering tensions between the Lebanese and the country’s 350,000 Palestinian refugees, some of whom have been in the country since shortly after the formation of Israel.

The Lebanese often accuse the Palestinians of starting the long-running civil war that began in 1975, while the Palestinians complain that they are denied citizenship and barred from working in almost 70 professions, consigning most of the refugees to poverty.

Yesterday’s fighting continued intermittently until a truce that began about 4:30 p.m. and appeared to be holding late into the evening.

As many as 10,000 panicked and miserable Palestinians used the opportunity to flee to a nearby refugee camp, Beddawi, also near Tripoli.

Many hung white sheets from their vehicles or held white plastic bags out the windows. Some were driving on flat tires.

The escapees spoke of a “massacre” inside the camp, where 30,000 to 40,000 people are wedged into an area of only a few square miles.

Fatah Islam has taken over buildings and homes in the camp and surrounding hamlets, often leaving the residents trapped inside. The Lebanese army, in turn, is shelling those buildings, often reducing them to rubble.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency said dozens of buildings have been destroyed with the residents still inside.

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