- The Washington Times - Friday, May 25, 2007

TRIPOLI, Lebanon — The United States and Arab allies rushed military aid to Lebanon yesterday, boosting the government’s strength ahead of an expected army assault to crush Islamic militants barricaded in a Palestinian refugee camp.

Palestinian factions were scrambling to find a negotiated solution to end the siege and avert what many fear would be a bloody battle over the Nahr el-Bared camp, where thousands of civilians remain in the line of fire.

Defense Minister Elias Murr said he was “leaving room for political negotiations,” which he said must lead to the surrender of the fighters from the Fatah Islam militant group inside the camp.

“If the political negotiations fail, I leave it to the military command to do what is necessary,” he told reporters.

The military was gearing up for a fight, rolling more troops into place around the camp in northern Lebanon, already ringed by hundreds of soldiers backed by artillery and tanks. Fatah Islam claims to have more than 500 fighters, armed with automatic weapons, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades.

Sporadic gunfire at the Nahr el-Bared camp kept tensions high, but a truce that halted three days of heavy artillery and rocket bombardment since Tuesday held.

An all-out assault on the camp would risk sparking unrest and violence elsewhere in the country, where some 400,000 Palestinian refugees live, most in camps that are rife with armed groups.

At least a dozen more armored carriers and a battle tank were seen headed for the area yesterday.

A deputy Fatah Islam leader, Abu Hureira, told the pan-Arab Al Hayat daily by telephone from Nahr el-Bared that “sleeper cells” in other Palestinian camps and elsewhere in Lebanon were awaiting word for a “violent response” if the army attacked.

A group billing itself as al Qaeda’s branch in Syria and Lebanon vowed “seas of blood” if the Lebanese army resumes its attack. In a video posted on the Internet yesterday, a spokesman for the group threatened bomb attacks on Lebanon’s vital tourist industry. Earlier, a Palestinian group called the Army of Islam also threatened attacks.

Between late Thursday and early afternoon yesterday, five military transport planes landed at Beirut airport, including one from the U.S. Air Force, two from the United Arab Emirates and two from Jordan.

The military refused to comment on the shipments, but press reports said they included ammunition, body armor, helmets and night-vision equipment.

U.S. military officials said Washington would send eight planes of supplies, part of a package that had been agreed on but that the Lebanese government asked to be expedited.

The airlift boosts the military in what could be a tough urban battle inside the camp, a densely built town of narrow streets.

But the U.S. aid is sensitive in a nation deeply divided between supporters of a pro-Western government and an opposition backed by America’s Mideast foes, Iran and Syria.

About half of Nahr el-Bared’s population of 31,000 fled the camp during the truce, flooding into the nearby Beddawi camp. At least 20 civilians and 30 soldiers were killed in the fighting earlier this week. The Lebanese military says 60 Fatah Islam fighters were killed, though the group put the toll at 10.

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