Tuesday, May 29, 2007

NAHR EL-BARED, Lebanon — Heavily armed foreign jihadists have been entering Lebanon from Syria from around the time Western authorities noticed a drop in the infiltration of foreign fighters from Syria to Iraq, Lebanese officials say.

Syrian authorities, hoping to disrupt Lebanon so they can reassert control of the country, “have stopped sending [the jihadists] to Iraq and are now sending them here,” charged Mohammed Salam, a specialist in Palestinian affairs in Lebanon. “They sent those people to die in Lebanon.”

Maj. Gen. Ashraf Rifi, commander of Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces, said about half of the militants who have been battling Lebanese forces in the Nahr el-Bared refugee camp outside Tripoli for nine days had fought previously in Iraq.

“They are very dangerous,” he said in an interview. “We have no choice, we have to combat them.”

Officials traveling with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said before Miss Rice’s meeting with her Syrian counterpart in Egypt early this month that Syria appeared to be taking “positive” steps to guard its border with Iraq, resulting in a reduced number of jihadists crossing the border.

But U.N. officials running the Nahr el-Bared camp told The Washington Times that a large band of foreigners carrying mortars, rockets, explosive belts and other heavy weapons entered the camp in a group several months ago.

That is near the time that infiltration of militants from Syria into Iraq fell off, according to Lebanese authorities, who suspect the jihadists were simply redirected by Damascus.

Several thousand residents have been trapped in the Palestinian refugee camp since fighting broke out May 20 between the army and several hundred militants of a group called Fatah Islam, which includes a large number of foreign fighters.

Palestinian leaders tried yesterday to negotiate an end to the standoff, in which Lebanese army forces are ringed around the camp, but Prime Minister Fuad Siniora insisted that the militants surrender and face justice.

Gen. Rifi said the foreigners began arriving in Lebanon during the war between Hezbollah and Israel last summer, when between 60 and 70 jihadists were integrated into Fatah al-Intifada, a group set up by Syrian intelligence in the 1980s.

In November last year, a Palestinian with Jordanian citizenship named Shaker Youssef al-Absi broke with Fatah al-Intifada and set up a new group, Fatah Islam, based in the Nahr el-Bared camp. Gen. Rifi said Fatah Islam has about 250 fighters, of which about 50 have been killed so far.

“They are parasites,” the general said. “Even in Nahr el-Bared, there are not a lot of Palestinians with Fatah Islam.”

The original group had about 30 to 40 Lebanese members and 20 Palestinians in the leadership positions, Gen. Rifi said. The rest were made up of fighters from Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Yemen, Algeria and even from as far as Bangladesh.

Residents of the camp appear to have been terrorized by the jihadists, according to interviews with Palestinians who fled for their lives over the past week.

The militants “were shooting at anyone who moved,” said one refugee who declined to give his name. He said he could tell they were foreign by listening to their accents, but his wife shushed him and he said no more.

Gen. Rifi said there are several more cells of foreign jihadists scattered around Lebanon. Some are in the Palestinian camps, some are in Tripoli and some are in Beirut. Another government official said some were based in the Bekaa Valley.

“Some [Gulf] Arabs, originally from al Qaeda, joined the group,” Gen. Rifi said. “But they are false al Qaeda. Our al Qaeda is made in Syria.”

Money for the fighters comes from local criminal activities, such as bank robberies — one of which sparked the current standoff — and support from Gulf countries and “local politicians,” said a senior regional military source. “They’re part of the global jihad,” he said.

Many government supporters think the timing of this flare-up, given an upcoming U.N. Security Council vote on the formation of an international tribunal to investigate the murder of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, indicates Syria’s involvement.

“It’s actually a Syrian-sponsored and -coordinated move to send these jihadis into Lebanon to topple the regime,” said Mr. Salam.

Syria has been using the militant Shi’ite group Hezbollah to advance its interests in Lebanon, but Mr. Salam suggested Damascus was worried about inflaming religious tensions with the Sunni-led government that could spill over into Syria.

The Syrians “wouldn’t mind demolishing Lebanon, but they didn’t want to do it with a Sunni-Shi’ite war because that could cross the border into Syria. So they got Sunnis to fight Sunnis,” the analyst said.

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