Fighting rages in refugee camp
TRIPOLI, Lebanon – Artillery and machine gun fire echoed around a crowded Palestinian refugee camp today as fighting resumed between besieging Lebanese troops and Islamic militants holed up inside, ending a nighttime lull.
Lebanese troops pounded with artillery at daybreak the suspected positions of the Fatah Islam militants, seeking to destroy the group with al-Qaida ties or force them out of the Nahr el-Bared camp on the outskirts of this northern port city, Lebanon’s second largest. A plume of black smoke billowed from an unknown target in the camp.
The army brought in reinforcements from other regions. Two trucks towing field artillery were seen heading toward Tripoli on the coastal highway late Monday.
The renewed fighting ended an overnight lull amid efforts for an informal cease-fire between the two sides.
Palestinian factions attempted to broker a cease-fire. The representative of the Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad, Abu Ahmed Rifai, said Fatah Islam militants pledged to cease firing and withdraw from positions facing Lebanese troops. A senior officer at Lebanese army command would not say a cease-fire was reached but repeated the military’s stance that it will not shoot if it does not come under fire.
The battle with the Sunni Muslim group opened an unwelcome second front for Lebanon’s weak military and its Western-backed government, which is already locked in a standoff with the Shiite Hezbollah movement. Worried Lebanese had been looking to the south, not the north, for trouble, fearing a resumption of last summer’s war between Israel and Hezbollah.
Palestinian officials told news agencies that Monday’s fighting killed at least nine residents of the camp and wounded 40. At least 27 Lebanese soldiers and 20 militants were killed in Sunday’s first day of fighting, while Lebanese TV reported eight soldiers killed by midafternoon Monday. It was not immediately possible to confirm the casualty figures.
The fierce battle that began Sunday also has killed an unknown number of civilians, raising fears that Lebanon’s worst internal violence since the 1975-1990 civil war could spread.
On Monday, two tanks perched on a cliff poured cannon fire into the refugee camp. Booming thuds marked rounds from artillery farther out in the surrounding hillside.
Fatah al-Islam gunmen fired at troops throughout the day. At times, gunmen and soldiers, separated by only a few dozen feet, faced off across a road bordering the camp. Families from surrounding towns fled along the same road, dodging gunfire.
Lebanese soldiers in armored vehicles lined up along the road served as both warriors and traffic cops. When gunshots sounded from fighters hiding in the brush along the other side, military gunners held up a hand to hold back fleeing residents long enough for the soldiers to squeeze off several high-caliber rounds, then waved the civilian vehicles on.
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