Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Army pushes Fatah al-Islam back, prepares to use heavier artillery

Army pushes Fatah al-Islam back, prepares to use heavier artillery
Magistrate interrogates detainees on plans for terrorist bombings
By Hani M. Bathish
Daily Star staff

BEIRUT: The Lebanese Army advanced from the northeast against Fatah al-Islam positions inside the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp on Tuesday amid a heavy artillery barrage, which reached a crescendo at about 6 p.m. The southern road to the camp, which had been used by humanitarian agencies to deliver aid, came under fire Tuesday morning when Fatah al-Islam tried to infiltrate the area. The army continued to tighten its grip on the camp as army engineers continued clearing camp buildings of possible booby traps ahead of the troops' advance. Militants' mobile phones have also been disconnected since Monday, the army said. The Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation (LBC) reported on Tuesday that the army had taken control of and confiscated many documents from the Nawras compound, at the northern edge of the camp, which included an office where Fatah al-Islam militants used to meet. Heavier-caliber, 240-millimeter artillery shells will be brought into the fight against the militants by Wednesday, according to the LBC report. The heaviest caliber used by the army has been 155-millimeter. The army, while it continued to respond to sources of hostile fire from inside the camp, said it tried to avoid hitting places of worship. The army statement warned militants not to launch attacks from locations such as Al-Quds Mosque.

While the army registered no casualties on Tuesday, it announced the names of the three soldiers who died in fighting on Monday: Sergeant Major Mustafa Ali al-Dahi, Sergeant Shadi Halim al-Jalbout and Corporal Mohammad Othman al-Hussein. The army denied that two of its members had been kidnapped in Tripoli by Fatah al-Islam members, as some local media reports said. Military Investigative Magistrate Rashid Mezher interviewed one of the key Fatah al-Islam detainees, Lebanese national Ahmad Merhi, about the latter's role in the organization and the plans that he and his comrades intended to carry out in Lebanon, according to judicial sources. Mohammad Merhi, Ahmad's brother and another Fatah al-Islam member were detained and interrogated earlier. Mohammad Merhi reportedly revealed bomb plots and named potential targets selected to destabilize Lebanon to allow the establishment of an Islamic caliphate in the North. The statements of the brothers also confirmed the smuggling of fighters from Iraq to Lebanon via Syria, recruiting fighters in Lebanon and training them, the sources said.

Following a security sweep late Monday, army intelligence detained three suspects in Bar Elias in the Bekaa Valley - two Palestinians and one Syrian - and confiscated documents during a raid on a home there. Abu Hassan al-Badoun, a spokesman for the Islamic Action Front, told The Daily Star on Tuesday that mediation efforts with Fatah al-Islam are continuing, and that the group is asking for a neutral investigation into the events of May 20, when a Fatah al-Islam attack on army posts outside the camp provoked the battle. "They believe they were taken to a place they never wanted to go and that the trap was laid for them as well as for the army. They want a neutral investigation to determine who is responsible," Badoun said, adding that the organization is capable and ready to continue fighting. He also argued that it was not useful to refer to the group as a criminal gang that would be swept away by the army. Badoun said many were trying to oversimplify the matter, which is much more complex. "First, we need to know what the intentions of the expatriate Arabs in the organization are," Badoun said, such as whether they share goals with Al-Qaeda. Responding to events in Nahr al-Bared, a Syria-based, Al-Qaeda-inspired group called Tawhid and Jihad in Syria has threatened to "kidnap, shoot and chop the heads of Lebanese" if the Lebanese Army does not stop bombarding Fatah al-Islam positions inside Nahr al-Bared, according to an AFP report. Tawhid and Jihad first emerged in November last year when its former leader, Omar Abdullah, clashed with Syrian security forces and blew himself up on the Syrian-Lebanese border. The group posted its warning on a Web forum often used by militants. "We warn the Lebanese government that its vital interests, officials and sons will be moving targets for us, if it does not lift its siege of the camp," the statement said.

Sheikh Mohammad al-Haj, a member of the League of Palestinian Clerics trying to mediate a peaceful settlement to the fighting in Nahr al-Bared, told the Associated Press that his meeting on Monday with Fatah al-Islam spokesman Shahine Shahine was positive and Shahine showed flexibility. Haj said the delegation of Palestinian clerics continued its mediation efforts on Tuesday with Fatah al-Islam leaders to avoid a military resolution to the standoff with the army, according to a report by the National News Agency. Haj, who was shot in the leg on Monday, said mediation efforts will continue whether or not he personally goes into the camp, adding that talks have made major progress. He said the man who shot him was a "well known member of a Palestinian faction." - With agencies

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