BEIRUT – The Lebanese army declared victory Sunday in its 15-week-old war against Islamic radicals holed up in a Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon, after a fierce final battle in which the last of the militants there were killed, captured or escaped.
Residents lined the roads leading to the battered Nahr el-Bared refugee camp near the northern port of Tripoli, clapping and showering rice on army troops as they swept toward the camp, which has been under siege since May 20.
The collapse of the militants brought to a close one of the more bizarre conflicts in Lebanon’s bloody history, in which a bank robbery gone wrong erupted into a small but ferocious war between the army and Fatah al-Islam, a little-known band of mostly Palestinian Sunni radicals with declared sympathies to al-Qaida.
The end came after one group of the fighters attempted to escape, while another group engaged Lebanese army troops elsewhere in the camp. The army said it killed at least 31 fleeing fighters and captured 15, and that an unspecified number of others possibly escaped. Five soldiers also died.
The fate of the group’s leader, Shaker al-Absi, was not known, but the Arab satellite channel Al-Jazeera quoted army sources as saying they believed he was among the dead. Army soldiers set up checkpoints across the country to find the fugitives and closed the main route north to Syria, which Lebanon’s government claims had supported the Fatah al-Islam group.
Lebanon’s prime minister, Fouad Siniora, delivered a televised address to the nation in which he hailed the army’s “victory over terrorists.”
“This is an hour of pride, victory and joy – and especially of pride in our martyrs and in our army spread out over the land,” he said.
Sunday’s deaths brought to more than 300 the number killed, including 158 army soldiers.
It was the first major test of the Lebanese army since the withdrawal of Syrian forces in 2005 left Lebanon free of foreign occupation for the first time in 29 years. The usually divided Lebanese people rallied behind their armed forces, but the high toll and the length of time it took the soldiers to dislodge a force put at no more than 350 fighters highlighted the shortcomings of the army.
Days earlier, the U.S. military had delivered 130 armored vehicles to the Lebanese army, part of a $280 million military aid package aimed at shoring up the state.
Fears that the fighting would spread to other Palestinian camps or that militancy would spread to other Lebanese groups did not materialize. Addressing Palestinians as “our brothers,” Siniora reassured them that the war was not aimed at Palestinians and pledged to rebuild the ravaged refugee camp that had been home to 31,000 people.
But the war cost Lebanon millions of dollars in tourism for a second consecutive summer. The country is still struggling to recover from the militant group Hezbollah’s war last year with Israel. It also raised for the first time the specter that al-Qaida-style militancy is spreading in Lebanon. Until it is known how many fighters escaped, it will be unclear whether the threat they posed has ended.