Monday, September 03, 2007

Lebanese Army prevails at Nahr al-Bared

Lebanese Army prevails at Nahr al-Bared
Fatah al-islam militants slaughtered in last-ditch bid to break out of camp

By Michael Bluhm
Daily Star staff

BEIRUT: The Lebanese Army crushed a series of pre-dawn escape attempts by Fatah al-Islam militants on Sunday and won control of the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp in North Lebanon after more than 100 days of battle. Soldiers briefly danced in the streets near the camp with celebrating locals to mark the end of a conflict that left some 158 soldiers dead, as well as some 20 civilians and dozens of militants, according to official army counts. The army killed 39 militants and captured 20 others on Sunday when the remaining Fatah al-Islam gunmen tried in at least three places to break out of the largely destroyed camp at about 3-4 a.m., said an AP report. A high-ranking senior army officer told retired army General Elias Hanna that the military believed Fatah al-Islam leader Shaker al-Abssi had fled three to four hours before the other militants' bids to escape, Hanna said. As The Daily Star went to press, however, reports emerged that Abssi's body had been found at Nahr al-Bared. These could not be confirmed. The attempted breakout began as a clutch of gunmen sprang from an underground tunnel in an army-controlled part of the camp, a television report said. At the same time, another band of militants reportedly attacked a different army position while accomplices from outside the camp arrived in a white Mercedes to pin army troops down from the other side. Soldiers killed three men from the car, a report by Agence France Presse said.

The army initially believed Abssi was in a third crew that snuck out along a river running between the southeastern part of the camp and the village of Ayun al-Samak in a remote mountainous region, the AFP report said. The army killed a number of members of that group, but several escaped. Army troops fanned out around the camp and blocked roads to stop militants from fleeing, as helicopters helped in the search for fleeing gunmen, said an AP report. The two other attempts at breaking out of the camp might have only been a "decoy" to give Abssi cover to get as far away from the camp as possible, perhaps out of the country, Hanna said. "It was like a desperation move for Fatah al-Islam or maybe for the army not to kill or capture Shaker al-Abssi," he told The Daily Star. "I expected a breakthrough, but it seems that these guys really want to die. They had prepared for all of this when they evacuated the wives and the children." The planning and use of outside personnel in Sunday morning's operation signals that Fatah al-Islam can still function despite the end of the Nahr al-Bared battle, Hanna warned. "This kind of operation needs broader capabilities," he said. "It was well-prepared from inside and outside. They have to have communication and they have to have a certain knowledge or tactical information about what is going on outside Nahr al-Bared. There must be some people who planned for his escape from the camp. "Was it only Shaker al-Abssi? I doubt it. This is not Abssi only. He is not Napoleon. "From the outside they still have some committed people. There must be some more Lebanese or some more regional players involved."

The militants could never have won at Nahr al-Bared once the army surrounded the camp after hostilities erupted on May 20, but the army performed well in the conflict against the well-armed and well-trained Fatah al-Islam militants despite the army's lack of advanced weaponry and experience in urban warfare, he said. "From the first day when the camp was encircled, militarily speaking it is doomed," Hanna said. "I don't think that three months for our army is too long if you take the situation of the camp - a very condensed area." Army Commander General Michel Suleiman had told the Cabinet that the siege could last from three to six months, Hanna added. The army's victory might deter any other militant groups with similar plans in Lebanon, Hanna said. "The stakes were very high," he added. "This fight may help the army to really understand what could face the army in the future in Ain al-Hilweh or Rashidiyeh," he added.

Even though the army has taken control of the Nahr al-Bared camp, the military still has work to do. "From the military point of view, we're not done yet," Hanna said. "The army still has to clear the camp, see what is inside, debrief the people and reconstruct the whole structure of Fatah al-Islam" to determine if it resembled Al-Qaeda or was linked to a foreign intelligence apparatus. The gun battles ceased before noon on Sunday, while the army later cordoned off the area around the camp, closed the nearby road connecting Tripoli to Syria, set up checkpoints throughout the country and continued searching for escaped militants. The army burned a field near Nahr al-Bared to flush out militants. Many inhabitants of North Lebanon armed themslves with guns and sticks to defend their communities and deny refuge to escaped militants, one report said. Others gathered near the camp to cheer the soldiers, and nearby villagers fired weapons to celebrate the conquest. The army also asked the displaced residents of the Nahr al-Bared camp, who number more than 31,000, not to return there until the military opened the camp. - With agencies

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