Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Palestinians flee as Lebanon army set to storm camp By Nazih Saddiq

Palestinians flee as Lebanon army set to storm camp By Nazih Saddiq

About 160 Palestinians fled a refugee camp in north Lebanon on Wednesday as the Lebanese army prepared to launch a final assault against al Qaeda-inspired militants holed up inside. Troops have been battling Fatah al-Islam fighters at Nahr al-Bared for nearly eight weeks in Lebanon's worst internal violence since the 1975-1990 civil war. A total of 205 people have been killed. The army seized all the militants' positions on the outskirts of the camp last month but refrained from entering its official boundaries.

A 1969 Arab agreement had banned Lebanese security forces from entering Palestinian camps. The agreement was annulled by the Lebanese parliament in the mid 1980s but the accord effectively stayed in place. Security and political sources said the army was concerned it was being dragged into a war of attrition with the militants dug in inside the camp's narrow alleys and decided to move in to crush them after they refused repeated calls for surrender. A soldier was killed by a sniper on Tuesday. At least 87 soldiers, 75 militants and 43 civilians have been killed in the fighting that began on May 20. The sources said the army deployed extra troops in the area and was expected to use helicopter gunships and naval boats as well as tanks and heavy artillery in any assault on the coastal encampment. Palestinian sources said some of the last remaining civilians in the camp left on Wednesday ahead of the expected assault. Local representatives of Fatah and other factions of the Palestine Liberation Organisation also left.

Witnesses said some two dozen men who left the camp were taken by the army to a nearby barracks for questioning. Red Cross sources said a total of 161 people, including women and children, left. Most of Nahr al-Bared's 40,000 inhabitants fled in the early days of the fighting but a few thousands have stayed behind. The Lebanese government says Fatah al-Islam is a tool of Syrian intelligence, a charge Damascus and Fatah al-Islam deny. The group says it has no organizational ties with al Qaeda, but supports its militant ideology. Some of its members -- mainly Lebanese, Palestinians, Syrians and Saudis -- have fought in Iraq. Security sources say at least 10 Saudis are among the dead militants. The authorities have blamed the group for twin bus bombings in a Christian area near Beirut in February that killed three civilians. Investigators are also pointing a finger at the militants in the assassination of an anti-Syrian Christian government minister last November.

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