Red Cross to continue assistance in Lebanon

BEIRUT (AP) — The Red Cross pledged Tuesday to continue assistance in a battle-scarred Palestinian refugee camp despite the death of two volunteers as Lebanese troops, backed by heavy artillery barrages, chipped away at Islamists barricaded in dense neighbourhoods still housing thousands of civilians.The fighting between Lebanese troops and Fateh Islam gunmen has claimed more than 140 lives — 60 soldiers, at least 60 Fateh Islam gunmen and at least 20 civilians — since its outbreak May 20 at the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr Bared near the northern port city of Tripoli.

The ferocity of combat — the army deploying tanks and field artillery with the gunmen using mortars, rockets and booby traps — underscored the tough task Lebanon’s military was facing in its campaign to destroy gunmen who have attacked its checkpoints.

It is difficult to ascertain what is happening inside the besieged camp. Journalists have been kept away, and the media has had to rely on statements from the army and the group’s leaders, who spoke to reporters by cellular phone from hideouts inside the camp.

But it is clear from the bombardment’s intensity, the military reinforcements, the rising clouds of smoke and increasing number of casualties that heavy fighting has continued.

On Tuesday, the state-run National News Agency reported that Fateh Islam buried 20 fighters Monday night. It also said the army fired at infiltrators, killing nine and seven in two incidents. It did not say when the infiltrations took place, and the report could not be confirmed by Fateh Islam, which in the past has reported fewer causalities than the numbers provided by the army.

Lebanese security officials also said a fuel ship attempting to dock near power station south of Nahr Bared was forced to leave Tuesday after several mortar rounds were fired towards it from the camp. The ship was not hit.

Also Tuesday, the bodies of the two Red Cross volunteers killed Monday were taken to their hometowns in the northern Akkar region. Dozens of villagers showered the caskets during services with rice and flowers, a traditional Arab sign of acute grief.

The volunteer workers were killed Monday when a shell fired from Nahr Bared struck near a first aid post on the edge of the camp near an army position. They were the first aid workers killed in this fighting, Lebanon’s worst internal violence since the end of the 1975-90 civil war.

The Red Cross pledged to continue operations, though it was not allowed to enter the camp Tuesday.

“We’re not cancelling our operations. … We continue our work,” Virginia de la Guardia of the International Committee of the Red Cross told the Associated Press Tuesday. “We know 100 per cent that the Red Cross was not targeted.” De la Guardia said two bodies were removed from the camp and 75 civilians, including two who were wounded, were evacuated Monday. Aid workers have evacuated 342 people from the camp since Sunday, many of them children and babies.

Most of the camp’s 31,000 residents have fled to a nearby camp, though De la Guardia estimated between 3,000 and 6,000 remained inside Nahr Bared.

The army, which on Saturday suffered one of its biggest losses in a push into the camp, appeared to be slowly flushing out gunmen who have taken up positions in apartment buildings, basements and even manholes.

The army announced three more deaths from Monday’s fighting but had no casualty report from Tuesday’s combat.

A senior military official said that the army was consolidating its positions and “tightening the noose” on the gunmen. The official, speaking on customary condition of anonymity because he was not authorised talk to the media, urged Fateh Islam fighters to turn themselves in.

Fateh Islam leaders have pledged to fight to death but also have been talking to Islamic clerics about finding a way out. One mediator, Palestinian cleric Mohammed Haj, was lightly wounded by gunfire Monday as he left the camp.

There have been persistent reports that Fateh Islam ranks have been swelled by outlaws wanted by authorities and fighters from the pro-Syrian Palestinian group, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command. But the Damascus-based group’s leader, Ahmed Jibril, adamantly denied the accusations Tuesday and accused Lebanese pro-government political groups of supporting the gunmen before the fighting erupted.

“We did not take part in the fighting or provide military supplies to Fateh Islam,” he told the AP in Syria.

Pro-government groups have rejected accusations they had supported the gunmen and instead have accused Syria of orchestrating the rebellion to destabilise Lebanon.

Damascus denies the allegations, saying it is fighting such armed groups.

The violence at Nahr Bared has also threatened to spread to the other 11 Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. Two other soldiers were killed in clashes last week with gunmen in another camp, Ain Al Hilweh, in southern Lebanon.

A Syrian-based Al Qaeda-inspired group on Tuesday also warned it would carry out attacks, “kidnapping, shooting and chopping of heads” of Lebanese in Syria if the Lebanese army doesn’t stop bombarding Fateh Islam.

The group, known as “Tawhid and Jihad in Syria,” pledged support for Fateh Islam, according to a statement posted on a website commonly used by gunmen.

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