Troops pound refugee camp in all-out battle with militant gang
LEBANESE troops pounded a Palestinian refugee camp with artillery and tank fire for a second day yesterday, raising huge palls of smoke as they battled a militant group suspected of ties to al-Qaeda.
In Lebanon's worst eruption of violence since the end of its civil war 17 years ago, nearly 50 combatants were killed in the first day of fighting on Sunday at the Nahr el-Bared camp, where the Fatah Islam militant group is holed up. Palestinian officials in the crowded camp on the outskirts of Tripoli reported at least nine deaths yesterday.
Columns of black smoke filled the sky as fires raged for hours, and heavy gunfire and explosions rang out constantly. Shells could be seen thudding into buildings in the seaside camp.
"There are many wounded. We're under siege. There is a shortage of bread, medicine and electricity. There are children under the rubble," Sana Abu Faraj, a refugee, told al-Jazeera television from inside the camp.
Fighting paused briefly in the afternoon to allow the evacuation of 18 wounded civilians, but the battle quickly resumed.
This is an unprecedented showdown between the Lebanese army and militant groups that have arisen in the country's Palestinian refugee camps that are home to tens of thousands of people living amid poverty and crime, and which Lebanese troops are not allowed to enter.
Shaker al-Absi, Fatah Islam's leader, says he is inspired by al-Qaeda's Osama bin Laden and is training militants to carry out attacks in other countries - he is believed to have sent fighters to join Iraq's insurgency.
Abu Salim, a spokesman for Fatah Islam, warned that if the army siege did not stop, the militants would step up attacks by rockets and artillery "and would take the battle outside Tripoli".
He went on: "It is a life-or-death battle. Their aim is to wipe out Fatah Islam. We will respond and we know how to respond."
Earlier in the day, another refugee camp, Ein el-Hilweh in southern Lebanon, was tense after troops surrounded it and armed militants went on alert.
Lebanon says it cannot enter the camps, under understandings with the Palestinians that give the PLO authority there. It probably also fears an assault on the camp would spark wider unrest and a backlash of sympathy for the Palestinian refugees across the Arab world.
The clashes were triggered when police raided suspected Fatah Islam hideouts in Tripoli, searching for men wanted for a recent bank robbery. A gun battle erupted, and troops were called in to help the police.
Militants then burst out of the nearby refugee camp, seizing Lebanese army positions and ambushing troops. Lebanese troops later laid siege to the refugee camp.
Fatah Islam arose after Shaker al-Absi, a Palestinian, was expelled from Syria - where he had been held in custody - and set himself up in Nahr el-Bared last autumn.
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Saturday 25 May 2013
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