NAHR EL-BARED REFUGEE CAMP, Lebanon – Lebanon’s defense minister issued an ultimatum Wednesday to Islamic militants barricaded in this Palestinian refugee camp to surrender or face a military onslaught.
Fighters from the al-Qaida-inspired Fatah al-Islam militant group vowed not to give up and to fight any Lebanese assault.
Storming the Nahr el-Bared camp – a densely built-up town of narrow streets on the Mediterranean coast – could mean rough urban fighting for Lebanese troops and further death and destruction for the thousands of civilians who remain inside.
It could also have grave repercussions elsewhere across troubled Lebanon, sparking unrest among the country’s estimated 400,000 Palestinian refugees. Already some of the other refugee camps in Lebanon, which are rife with armed groups, are seething with anger over the fighting.
But the military appeared determined to uproot Fatah al-Islam after three days of heavy bombardment of the camp, sparked by an attack by the militants on Lebanese troops Sunday following a raid on its fighters in the nearby northern city of Tripoli.
“Preparations are seriously under way to end the matter,” Defense Minister Elias Murr said in an interview with Al-Arabiya television. “The army will not negotiate with a group of terrorists and criminals. Their fate is arrest, and if they resist the army, death.”
Members of Fatah al-Islam said they were ready to fight.
Around half of Nahr el-Bared’s 31,000 residents have fled since a halt in the fighting Tuesday night.
But thousands remain behind, either too ill to travel or unwilling to abandon their homes, and are now in danger of being caught in the crossfire.
John Holmes, the U.N. undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, appealed for immediate access to the refugee camp to deliver relief supplies and evacuate the wounded.
Occasional gunshots broke the quiet at the camp Tuesday night, witnesses said, but there was no fighting during the day Wednesday.
Murr said 30 Lebanese soldiers were killed in the three days of fighting, along with as many as 60 militants, including fighters from Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and Saudi Arabia. But a top Fatah al-Islam leader said only 10 of his men died.
U.N. relief officials said the bodies of at least 20 civilians were retrieved from inside the camp during the lull in fighting.
The U.N. Security Council condemned the attacks by Fatah al-Islam “in the strongest possible terms” Wednesday, saying they constitute an attempt to undermine the country’s stability, security and sovereignty.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also signaled her support for the Lebanese government, saying “we are quite certain that with the resolve that they’re showing, they’re going to be able to handle the situation.”
The Lebanese government appeared to be preparing in case the showdown sparks violence elsewhere in the country. In a sign of the danger, a bomb exploded Wednesday night in a mountain resort overlooking Beirut, a 90-minute drive south of Nahr el-Bared. The blast, which injured five people, was the third in the Beirut area since Sunday.