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.
UNRWA says it does not administer the camps, nor does it maintain a roster of legal occupants.
The U.N. agency is responsible only for registering refugees who want to use UNRWA facilities such as schools and clinics as well as assistance programs.
About 400,000 Palestinians live in Lebanon, most of them in severely crowded camps with little fresh water, sanitation or jobs. They camps originally held those displaced by the 1948 creation of Israel, although the refugee numbers have multiplied in later generations.
The chief U.N. coordinator for humanitarian affairs, John Holmes, yesterday condemned as “unacceptable and outrageous” a Tuesday mortar attack on a U.N. relief convoy that had just arrived inside the Nahr el-Bared camp. Baby formula, milk powder, bread and water supplies eventually were unloaded.
“I simply don’t know who is responsible for starting that exchange of fire,” said Mr. Holmes, adding that the number of casualties in that and other attacks still cannot be gauged.
He said the camp has been without running water or electricity since Sunday.
UNRWA is working with other agencies and private humanitarian groups to obtain shelter and services to those who have left.