Lebanon fighting sporadic

NAHR BARED (AFP) — Sporadic fighting continued on Tuesday in the Lebanese army’s battle to crush gunmen holed up in a refugee camp, amid reports the radicals’ resolve was weakening and that some were surrendering.

Three fighters from Al Qaeda inspired Fateh Islam group gave themselves up on Tuesday, with more seeking guarantees of safety if they do, the mainstream Palestinian faction Fateh said.

“Three gunmen have surrendered themselves and their weapons at our offices in Nahr Bared camp” in northern Lebanon, where fighting has been raging since May 20, Fateh’s leader in Lebanon, Sultan Abu Aynayn, told AFP.

“There are 18 others who called our offices and said they have stopped fighting and asked for guarantees in order to turn themselves in,” he said.

There was no confirmation from the Islamist group, or from the army.

Abu Aynayn said Fateh was engaged in contacts with the authorities in order to secure fair trial for those who surrender.

“Fateh Islam is in terminal phase, as its members are deserting its ranks,” he said, adding that only about 75 gunmen were still fighting.

The actual number of fighters in the camp has never been clear, and was originally put as high as 250.

Earlier, Fateh’s number two, Khaled Aref, said a number of gunmen surrendered on Monday and Tuesday to Fateh men.

An army spokesman said: “We have information that there were some elements which gave themselves up, but the army has not received any of them. We have information that some elements have also dropped their arms and left the fight, as many of them are in poor spirits.

“Now the army continues to tighten the noose on the gunmen, respond to the source of fire, track down armed elements and clear areas where there are explosives” around the camp.

No casualties were reported on Tuesday.

On Sunday, Fateh Islam spokesman Abu Salim Taha had said: “We will never surrender…. We will fight till the last drop of blood.” During a lull in fighting on Tuesday, a convoy of ambulances and trucks loaded with medicine entered the camp to supply the refugees left there, estimated to number between 3,000 and 5,000 of the original 31,000 inhabitants.

Virginia de la Guardia, spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, said the group had evacuated 12 residents, including one wounded and one pregnant, bringing to 45 the number brought out since Sunday.

In all, 108 people have been killed in 17 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.

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

The unrest is centred on Nahr Bared on the Mediterranean coast, but fears the unrest could spread through other camps were fuelled when deadly fighting broke out on Sunday at the Ain Al Hilweh camp between the army and members of another shadowy group known as Jund Sham, or Soldiers of Damascus.

On Tuesday, the situation remained calm around Ain Al Hilweh, in the southern city of Sidon, after fighting that left two Islamists and two soldiers dead the previous day.

Palestinian groups had agreed on Monday night to deploy police units, with different factions taking charge of different sectors.

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

The escalation of violence has prompted Washington to pledge more supplies to the Lebanese army after Congress last month approved a seven-fold increase in military assistance for 2007 to $280 million.

The United States has meanwhile granted $3.5 million  to help Palestinian refugees caught up in the fighting, Siniora’s office said.

The grant was announced by US Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman during a meeting of foreign diplomats called by Siniora to appeal for urgent grants to the refugees.

At the meeting, Siniora called on the international community to help alleviate the ordeal of the refugees who have been “the undeserved victims of much injustice.”

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