Siniora vows to wipe out militants

TRIPOLI  (AP) — Heavy exchanges of gunfire erupted late Thursday between Lebanese troops besieging a Palestinian refugee camp and Islamic militants holed up inside, breaking a two-day-old truce.

It was not clear what prompted the fighting, which appeared so far limited to exchanges, and there was no sign that the troops positioned on the camp’s edge were making any move to enter.  Until sundown Thursday, only sporadic gunfire marred the truce.

Earlier in the day, the Lebanese army moved troops around the Nahr  Bared camp but did not attempt to advance, apparently giving time for negotiations and for the militants to comply with a government ultimatum to surrender or face a military assault.

The renewed exchanges also came as both sides dug in their positions — the government determined to root out the militants and the fighters refusing to surrender.

Prime Minister Fuad Siniora vowed in a speech on Thursday to wipe out the militants barricaded in the camp, raising the prospect that the Lebanese army will either storm the camp, in what would likely be a bloody battle, or dig in for a long siege to force their surrender.

Fighters from the Al Qaeda-inspired Fateh  Islam militant group, estimated in the hundreds, saying they will fight off any Lebanese attack.

The fighting between the army and the militants, which broke out Sunday, has killed some 50 combatants and many civilians. Thousands of Palestinian civilians — mainly women and children — have fled the camp on the outskirts of this northern port city, but many thousands remain inside.

Most of the thousands of Palestinian refugees who have fled the Nahr Bared camp since the truce took hold on Tuesday packed into the nearby Beddawi refugee camp, lining up at UN-run schools and clinics with registration cards hoping to get food and mattresses. The camp’s six schools were overflowing with refugees who said that up to 50 people were sleeping in each classroom.

More refugees trickled out of Nahr Bared on Thursday. They left packed in a few pickup truck or walked out to the first army checkpoints where they were checked and allowed to proceed.

“How many times do we have to be displaced,” cried Palestinian refugee Nohad Abdul-Al, clad in a black robe and a black headscarf. “Have mercy on us! Have mercy on us,” she told the troops, holding an infant in her arms.

Her husband Bakri Abdul-Al said the family’s two-storey house had been destroyed and that they had decided to leave on Thursday “because we are now hearing the fighting will resume”.

 Amid media reports of Muslim clerics negotiating with the militants to avert an army onslaught, Lebanon’s government appeared to be preparing the grounds for a showdown, including the possible storming of the camp. The Lebanese military stays out of the camps under a 1969 agreement that allows the Palestinians to run them.

Siniora said in a TV address Thursday that Fateh  Islam was “a terrorist organisation” and blamed the group for “attempting to ride on the suffering and the struggle of the Palestinian people”.

 “We will work to root out and strike at terrorism, but we will embrace and protect our brothers in the camps,” Siniora said, insisting Lebanon has no quarrel with the 400,000 Palestinian refugees who live in the country.

Storming the Nahr Bared camp — a densely built-up town of narrow streets on the Mediterranean coast — could mean rough urban fighting for Lebanese troops and further death and destruction for the thousands of civilians who remain inside.

It could also spark unrest in Lebanon’s 11 other Palestinian refugee camps. Although Palestinian factions have dissociated themselves from Fateh Islam, refugees in other camps, which are rife with armed groups, were seething with anger over the army bombardments that have partially destroyed Nahr Bared.

In a sign of the danger, a bomb exploded on Wednesday night in the Aley mountain resort overlooking Beirut, a 90-minute drive south of the camp. The blast, which injured 16 people, was the third in the Beirut area since Sunday. One person has been killed and a dozen injured in the two other attacks.

Fateh Islam has denied responsibility for the bombings, but it had threatened to take the battle outside Tripoli if the army attacks. 

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