BEIRUT, Lebanon – A new front in Lebanon’s simmering political conflict erupted Sunday in the northern city of Tripoli, where running battles between the Lebanese army and a radical new Palestinian organization said to have ties to al-Qaida killed at least 39 people.
In the worst internal fighting since the end of Lebanon’s civil war 17 years ago, the army battled militants throughout the day in the streets of the port city and on the edges of the Palestinian refugee camp Nahr el-Bared, which late last year fell under the control of a radical group calling itself Fateh al-Islam.
The fighting started when Lebanese soldiers pursued a group of men suspected of involvement in an overnight bank robbery to a Tripoli apartment building that turned out to be occupied by dozens of Fateh al-Islam fighters.
As the army laid siege to the building, militants broke out of the nearby refugee camp and attacked army positions around it, seizing at least one position and prompting the Lebanese army to open fire on the camp with tank fire and artillery.
The army said 22 of its soldiers were killed, and news agencies reported the deaths of at least 15 militants. There were reports that an unknown number of civilians died in the bombardment of the camp, home to about 31,000 Palestinian refugees.
By nightfall, the violence appeared to have subsided and the army had restored control. But the ferocity of the unexpected battle pointed to the dangers inherent in the 6-month-old political standoff between pro- and anti-government factions and revived memories of Lebanon’s brutal civil war, which initially flared as a battle between Christian militias and powerful armed Palestinian groups.
Lebanese government officials immediately accused Syria of using Fateh al-Islam to stir up trouble just as the U.N. prepares to press forward with an international tribunal to try those suspected of involvement in the 2005 assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri.
“There is someone trying to create chaos to say to world public opinion, ‘Look, if the tribunal is established, there will be security trouble in Lebanon,’ ” Lebanon’s minister of youth and sports, Ahmed Fatfat, told the pro-government Future TV.
A U.N. inquiry has implicated Syrian officials in the killing, but efforts to create a tribunal have been thwarted by the crisis paralyzing the government.
Syria has denied any involvement in Fateh al-Islam, and mainstream Palestinian groups have also disavowed it.
Fateh al-Islam, a radical Sunni group, surfaced in the Nahr el-Bared camp in November.
The Lebanese government says the group has close ties to al-Qaida, and has accused it of responsibility for two bus bombings north of Beirut earlier this year, but the group has denied that it was involved.