Clashes in Lebanon, bomb hits capital

SIDON (AFP) — Deadly firefights in a Palestinian camp in south Lebanon and a bus bombing in the capital opened new fronts for the army on Monday as it battles to crush an Al Qaeda-inspired group in a 16-day standoff in the north of the country.

Residents were plunged into panic by the gunbattles between the army and Sunni Muslim extremists which first flared late Sunday near Ain Helweh, the largest of Lebanon’s 12 refugee camps in the southern city of Sidon.

Two soldiers and two gunmen were killed and 11 wounded, a military spokesman said, and dozens of families fled to safety before calm was restored later Monday. But in the evening a bomb went off under a public bus parked in Christian east Beirut wounding at least 10 bystanders, a security source said.

The explosion in the mixed residential and industrial district of Sed Baushrieh was the fourth to rock Lebanon since the clashes between the army and the Islamists broke out on May 20 and Information Minister Ghazi Aridi was swift to link the two.

“The bombings and the clashes are connected,” he said after an emergency Cabinet meeting. Footage broadcast by Lebanese television showed the bus had been burned out by the force of the explosion. Several parked cars and the facade of a nearby shopping centre were also badly damaged.

The security source said that one suspect had been arrested as police cordoned off the area.

Three people were killed by bombs placed on two buses in a Christian region north of Beirut in February.

The new violence came as Lebanese troops again pounded Fateh Islam gunmen in the Nahr Bared camp near the northern port city of Tripoli in a standoff that has left more than 100 people dead.

In a bid to contain the latest unrest, the army deployed more armoured vehicles around Ain Helweh and boosted security in Sidon where schools were closed and many shops remained shut.

The fighting pitted troops against gunmen from Jund Sham (Soldiers of Damascus), a little known group mainly made up of Islamist Lebanese extremists, some of them wanted.

Palestinian factions, which have sole control over security in Ain Helweh as in all other camps across the country, were in contact with Lebanese authorities to try to end the confrontation, local officials told AFP.

The latest flareup has fuelled concerns the violence could spread to more of the 12 camps which hold more than half of the 400,000 Palestinians in Lebanon, mostly in conditions of abject poverty, and have become breeding grounds for extremism.

In all, 108 people have been killed in 16 days of bloodshed, the deadliest internal feuding since the 1975-1990 civil war that has added to tensions in a country already in the grip of an acute political crisis.

Jund Sham, which has no clear hierarchy or particular leader, is believed to have about 50 men armed with assault rifles, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades.

In north Lebanon, army troops including about 1,000 crack commandos were tightening the noose around the gunmen holed up in Nahr Bared, where both sides are vowing to fight to the end.

After a lull in exchanges during the day, tanks and artillery launched a major bombardment on Monday evening against the squalid camp, where Fateh Islam is still holding out in the face of superior firepower.

“We will never surrender… we will fight till the last drop of blood,” Fateh Islam spokesman Abu Salim Taha told Jazeera television on Sunday.

Prime Minister Fuad Siniora has warned Fateh Islam to surrender or be wiped out.

Washington announced that it was considering sending more supplies to the Lebanese army after Congress last month approved a seven-fold increase in military assistance for 2007 to $280 million.

“There are some additional items that are already under consideration that we are talking about with the Lebanese forces,” said US national security adviser Stephen Hadley.

The earlier US aid package had already drawn strong criticism from Russia whose Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned of its potential to “destabilise” Lebanon.

It is not known whether the army is planning a ground assault on Nahr Bared. By longstanding convention, it does not enter Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camps, leaving security inside to groups.

Fateh Islam, a tiny but well-armed band of Sunni extremists which first surfaced only last year, is believed to have about 250 fighters, according to the prime minister.

Lebanon’s An-Nahar newspaper reported on Sunday that arrested members of the group had confessed it was planning a September 11-style attack in Beirut and bombings to isolate the north and proclaim an Islamic state there. 

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