- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 26, 2007

Firefight in Lebanon

The first reports of fighting in a Palestinian refugee camp near Tripoli, Lebanon, began coming across the wire services early last Sunday. It was obviously a story that should go into the paper, but how big?

The death toll rose through the day, reaching 39 militants and soldiers killed by publication time. And the militant group involved — which was previously unknown outside of Lebanon — had intriguing links to al Qaeda. That all suggested it deserved good play.

On the other hand, it was not clear how the violence tied into the broader political currents in Lebanon, and the story would have been all over cable TV and the Internet for 18 hours by the time it appeared in our pages Monday morning.

With that in mind, I decided to use a wire-agency story on an inside page and concentrate my efforts on getting a couple of our exclusive staff stories onto the front page.

Monday morning, with the fighting continuing and the death toll mounting, I began to regret my decision. The story had loads of drama, and the Lebanese government was accusing Syria of deliberately stirring up the trouble.

I went to my card file for the phone number of our stringer in Lebanon, Krystal Knapp, but was unable to reach her and got no reply to an e-mail. I checked with a mutual acquaintance and was told she was home in the United States for the summer. Oops.

Next I called Mitch Prothero, an excellent freelancer who has written for us from Lebanon in the past. Mr. Prothero, reached on his cell phone, was already in place outside the refugee camp but uncertain whether he could send us anything that night.

Our U.N. bureau chief Betsy Pisik, who covered the war in Lebanon last summer and was recently in Syria, suggested I try a freelancer she had met there named Christopher Allbritton. I reached Mr. Allbritton in Beirut and he agreed to file for us, but could not get to Tripoli until the following day.

Foreign fighters

We decided to use wire copy from Tripoli for the hour-by-hour action and have Mr. Allbritton write a sidebar from Beirut with whatever he could tell us about Fatah Islam — the militant group battling the troops — and any connections it might have to Syria or al Qaeda. The two stories ran as a package in the Tuesday paper.

On Tuesday, Mr. Allbritton was up early and at the refugee camp by the time we got to work. He gave us a fine live-action story describing the fighting in the camp and the chaotic scene as thousands of residents fled to safety during a pause in the shooting.

His story had vivid descriptions of the Palestinians trying to escape in cars with flat tires, waving white cloths from the windows. There were quotes from escapees describing the horrors inside the camp, where bodies lay strewn in the streets.

His reporting also carried the seeds of the next day’s story: He quoted a soldier saying one dead militant had carried Bangladeshi identity papers, and a resident saying his home had been seized by fighters whose accents identified them as having come from Saudi Arabia, Syria and Yemen.

I wanted to know more about these foreign fighters. How long have they been there? Were they in other camps in Lebanon? What were they planning to do there?

Mr. Allbritton couldn’t do that story for us on Wednesday; he had other clients who wanted the spot news story from the camp. But Miss Pisik told me the U.N. agency working with refugees in Lebanon was planning to hold a midday press conference in New York.

I asked her to put in a question about the foreign fighters and she struck pay dirt. The relief agency replied that a large group of foreigners had entered the Tripoli camp months earlier armed with mortars, rockets, explosive belts and other heavy weapons, but that bureaucratic restraints had prevented the U.N. from doing anything about it.

We had a pretty good angle for Thursday’s front page.

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is djones@washingtontimes.com.

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