Lebanon + 1 more

Fragile truce lets aid reach Lebanon refugee camp

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By Khaled Yacoub Oweis

NAHR AL-BARED, Lebanon, May 22 (Reuters) - Lebanese troops trying to flush out Islamist militants shelled a Palestinian refugee camp for a third day on Tuesday before a fragile truce took hold, allowing aid trucks to reach civilians trapped there.

Heavy fighting at Nahr al-Bared camp near the northern city of Tripoli resumed at dawn and subsided only in the afternoon. The army is attacking Fatah al-Islam, a small al Qaeda-inspired Sunni group that made its base in the camp last year.

Clashes died down after Fatah al-Islam said it would cease fire if the army did the same. The United Nations used the lull to deliver food, water and medical supplies to the camp.

Civilians took advantage of the truce to pack their cars and flee, flying white flags from their windows. This correspondent saw two wounded people lying in pools of blood in the street.

A militant from the Fatah al-Islam group blew himself up in a building in the city of Tripoli on Tuesday, a security source said. The building was empty and no security forces were wounded in the attack.

Shocked camp residents were emerging from their homes to view the destruction. Shell fire had torn huge holes in buildings. Gunmen with assault rifles were roaming the rubble-strewn streets.

"What the hell were they (the army) doing? Did they think they were fighting the Israeli army?" camp resident Mahmoud Tayyar asked.

Fatah al-Islam has little local support, but the firepower the army has turned on the camp has begun to anger Palestinians.

"We have seen many wars but never seen bombardment in this way. Entire areas have been destroyed," Jamal Laila, 40, said by telephone earlier. "Children have no milk, water or bread.

"For the sake of 10, 20 or 30 individuals an entire camp is being massacred," he said, weeping over the phone.

Speaking from the same number, Aisha Laila, 40, said her five-month-old child had no milk and her three other children were crouched in a corner while bombs hit nearby houses.

"Perhaps those Fatah al-Islam are here. But we don't know them and don't know where they are. Why are we being bombarded?"

U.N. aid trucks had waited for hours to enter the camp, on the coast just outside Tripoli, Lebanon's second biggest city. When they finally drove in, some residents threw stones at the trucks, angry that they had taken so long to arrive.

At least 22 militants, 32 soldiers and 27 civilians have been killed since the army and Fatah al-Islam began fighting on Sunday, making it Lebanon's worst internal violence since the 1975-1990 civil war. Fifty-five soldiers have also been wounded.

BOMBS IN BEIRUT

In Beirut, a bomb exploded in a shopping area in a mainly Sunni Muslim area on Monday night, wounding at least seven people. It appeared to mirror a blast on Sunday that killed a woman and wounded 10 people in a mainly Christian district.

A faxed statement in the name of Fatah al-Islam claimed responsibility for the blasts and threatened more. But group spokesman Abu Salim denied it was involved.

Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, a fierce foe of Syrian influence in Lebanon, said more such attacks were likely.

"Unfortunately I expect that the explosions will increase," he told reporters, accusing Damascus of backing Fatah al-Islam.

Crowds gathered at the Palestinian refugee camp of Beddawi, 9 km (five miles) from Nahr al-Bared, demanding a ceasefire and shouting slogans against the Lebanese army and government.

Hazma Qassem, a mosque imam in Beddawi, said people had at first opposed the militants but had turned against the Lebanese army due to its "scorched-earth policies".

In Ain al-Hilweh camp in southern Lebanon, Islamist militants blocked roads with tyres and several shops closed. "If the fighting (in the north) doesn't stop, the war will be with all Islam not just Fatah al-Islam," one militant said.

Prime Minister Fouad Siniora's government has said it wants to root out Fatah al-Islam, which it sees as a tool of Syria -- something denied by Damascus and the group itself.

In Ramallah, the PLO's executive committee, led by President Mahmoud Abbas, urged the Beirut government to distinguish between the "terrorist group" and Palestinians in Lebanon.

The United States said Lebanon was justified in attacking the militants. "Extremists that are trying to topple that young democracy need to be reined in," President George W. Bush said. (Additional reporting by Yara Bayoumy, Tom Perry and Laila Bassam in Beirut)

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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