- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 24, 2007

TRIPOLI, Lebanon — Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora vowed late yesterday to wipe out an Islamic militant group barricaded in a Palestinian refugee camp, raising the prospect that the army will either storm the camp, in what would likely be a bloody battle, or dig in for a long siege to force its surrender.

Sporadic gunfire, which grew heavier for a short period after nightfall, marred the two-day-old truce as the army moved troops around the Nahr el-Bared camp. But the troops did not attempt to advance, apparently giving time for negotiations and for the militants to comply with a government ultimatum to surrender or face a military assault.

It was not clear what prompted the heavy exchanges. Until sundown yesterday, only sporadic gunfire marred the truce.

The renewed exchanges also came as both sides stood firm — the government determined to root out the militants and the fighters refusing to surrender.

Fighters with the al Qaeda-inspired Fatah Islam militant group, estimated in the hundreds, said they will repel any Lebanese attack.

The fighting between the army and the militants, which broke out Sunday, has killed an estimated 50 combatants and many civilians. Thousands of Palestinian civilians — mainly women and children — have fled the camp on the outskirts of this northern port, but many thousands remain inside.

Most of the thousands of Palestinian refugees who have fled the Nahr el-Bared camp since the truce took hold Tuesday packed into the nearby Beddawi refugee camp, lining up at U.N.-run schools and clinics with registration cards and hoping to get food and mattresses. The camp’s six schools were overflowing with refugees who said that up to 50 people were sleeping in each classroom.

More refugees trickled out of Nahr el-Bared yesterday. They packed into a few pickup trucks or walked out to the first army checkpoints where they were inspected and allowed to proceed.

“How many times do we have to be displaced?” cried Palestinian refugee Nohad Abdel-Al, clad in a black robe and a black head scarf. “Have mercy on us. Have mercy on us,” she told the troops while holding an infant in her arms.

Amid press reports of Muslim clerics negotiating with the militants to avert an army onslaught, Lebanon’s government appeared to be preparing for a showdown, including the possible storming of the camp. The Lebanese military has stayed out of the camps under a 1969 agreement that allows the Palestinians to run them.

Mr. Siniora said in a TV address that Fatah Islam was “a terrorist organization” and blamed the group for “attempting to ride on the suffering and the struggle of the Palestinian people.”

“We will work to root out and strike at terrorism, but we will embrace and protect our brothers in the camps,” Mr. Siniora said, insisting Lebanon has no quarrel with the 400,000 Palestinian refugees in the country.

In a sign of the danger, a bomb exploded Wednesday night in the Aley mountain resort overlooking Beirut, a 90-minute drive south of Nahr el-Bared. The blast, which injured 16 persons, was the third in the Beirut area since Sunday. One person was killed and a dozen injured in the two other attacks.

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