2 Red Cross workers killed at Lebanon camp

1128.jpgNAHR BARED (AFP) — Two Red Cross workers and three soldiers were killed on Monday around a besieged camp in northern Lebanon where the army has struggled to crush Islamist gunmen for the past three weeks.Lebanese Red Cross spokesman Georges Kettane said that the two relief workers were hit at the northern entrance to the refugee camp by a shell fired came from inside the Nahr Bared camp.

The soldiers were killed by gunfire from inside the battered Palestinian refugee camp where Fateh Islam gunmen are entrenched, a military spokesman told AFP.

The Red Cross staff were the first relief workers killed in the conflict. And with the battle heating up again, a Palestinian mediator, Sheikh Mohammad Hajj, was shot and wounded in the leg, medics said. The local leader of Fateh group, Sultan Abul Aynain, said Hajj was shot by a Palestinian fighter after he refused to let the ambulance he was travelling in evacuate two wounded civilians.

Fateh Islam spokesman Shahine Shahine told AFP he met earlier on Monday with Hajj inside the camp. “I had constructive talks with him, but I cannot reveal details in order not to torpedo the mediation,” he said.

The army’s artillery gunners, meanwhile, bombarded both the northern and eastern sectors of Nahr Bared where the diehard gunmen are still holed up, an AFP correspondent on the scene said.

Smoke billowed into the sky as the shelling set off fires in the camp, where about 3,000 civilians are still marooned by the fighting which erupted on May 20 in increasingly desperate conditions.

Monday’s deaths came after a weekend of fierce gunbattles that left 17 people dead, bringing to 128 the number killed in the deadliest internal feuding since Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war.

The death toll includes 61 soldiers and 50 members of Fateh Islam, a shadowy Al Qaeda inspired Sunni splinter group which first emerged in Lebanon late last year.

The high weekend casualties came after the army staged an operation to storm Fateh Islam positions inside the camp.

The army tried to overrun positions held by the group, advancing 50 metres inside the camp, but encountered fierce resistance, losing troops to booby-trapped bomb blasts and grenades.

By longstanding convention the army does not enter Lebanon’s 12 refugee camps, leaving security inside to Palestinian fighters. But Prime Minister Fuad Siniora has hinted the arrangements might have to be reviewed.

“Fateh Islam’s entry into the Nahr Bared camp shows the failure of the Palestinians’ autonomous security system,” he told France 24 television.

On Sunday, relief workers evacuated 250 people from the Nahr Bared camp where more than 3,000 inhabitants out of an original 31,000 are still trapped. The rest have fled, mostly to another Palestinian camp nearby.

Lebanese authorities say the fighting was first sparked by raids on Fateh Islam hideouts in the nearby port city of Tripoli following a bank robbery, after which the gunmen attacked army posts.

Meanwhile, French envoy Jean-Claude Cousseran was holding talks in Beirut to follow up an invitation by France to host informal fence-mending talks between rival Lebanese political groups later this month.

Lebanon’s political system has been deadlocked since last November when six pro-Syrian ministers quit the Cabinet charging that it was riding roughshod over power-sharing arrangements in force since the end of the civil war.

Pro-Syrian Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri has since refused to convene MPs to ratify government legislation, including proposals for an international court to try suspects in the 2005 murder of ex-premier Rafiq Hariri.

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