NAHR AL-BARED, Lebanon, May 21 (Reuters) - Lebanese troops fought Islamist militants around a Palestinian refugee camp on Monday, a day after 57 people were killed in battles there and in the nearby northern city of Tripoli, security sources said.
Tank shells crashed into the coastal camp, home to some 40,000 refugees, raising plumes of smoke, as fighters of the little-known Fatah al-Islam group fired grenades and machineguns at army posts on the camp perimeter, witnesses said.
Palestinian sources in the camp said the shelling had killed two civilians. At least 27 soldiers, 15 militants and 15 civilians died in Sunday's violence, the worst internal fighting since Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war.
Lebanese Red Cross ambulances evacuated 20 wounded from the camp overnight, following an appeal for humanitarian access from the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Witnesses said imams called by loudspeakers for the army to stop shelling the camp, one of several across Lebanon which host about 400,000 Palestinian refugees, part of an exodus prompted by the 1948 war that followed Israel's creation.
In Beirut, an explosion near a popular shopping mall in the mainly Christian east of the capital killed a woman and wounded at least 10 people on Sunday night, a security source said.
No group has claimed the attack and it was not clear if it was linked to the fighting in the north. Four Fatah al-Islam members were charged with bombings near Beirut earlier this year.
Lebanese government ministers say Fatah al-Islam is a tool used by Syria to stir instability in an effort to derail U.N. moves to set up an international court that would try suspects in the 2005 killing of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri.
AL QAEDA SYMPATHIES
Fatah al-Islam, a Sunni Muslim group inspired by al Qaeda, is thought to have only a few hundred fighters, but suppressing it is no easy task for Lebanon's over-stretched army of 40,000.
The army may not enter the country's 12 Palestinian refugee camps under a 1969 Arab accord. Palestinian factions still carry weapons inside the camps, despite a 2004 U.N. Security Council resolution calling for all militias in Lebanon to be disarmed.
The resolution is rejected by Lebanon's biggest armed group, Hezbollah, whose Shi'ite Muslim guerrillas fought a 34-day war with Israel last year. Some 15,000 army troops moved to south Lebanon under a U.N. resolution that halted hostilities, while another 8,000 were sent to control the border with Syria.
Media on both sides of Lebanon's political divide criticised the authorities for not tackling Fatah al-Islam before.
"Who is responsible for the army's massacre in the Fatah al-Islam ambush?" asked as-Safir, a pro-opposition daily, referring to a militant attack on an army patrol on Sunday.
Using the army to tackle armed groups in Lebanon has long been a sensitive issue, given the country's sectarian divisions, but Nahr al-Bared's Lebanese neighbours have had enough.
"We're not sleeping at night. Our children are terrified. We're not leaving our homes. We don't want anything but God's mercy," said Ahmed Frousheh, 55, a farmer who lives nearby.
"The camp has to respect the state. They are destroying Lebanon, inciting strife all because of the tribunal and Syria."
Fatah al-Islam's leader, Shaker al-Abssi, was sentenced to death in Jordan in absentia for the 2002 killing of a U.S. diplomat. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the slain chief of al Qaeda in Iraq, received a death sentence for the same crime.
Abssi, a Palestinian guerrilla in his 50s, was jailed in Syria and fled to Lebanon after he was released last year.
Palestinian guerrillas established bases in Lebanon in the late 1960s and took part in the civil war that erupted in 1975.
Palestine Liberation Organisation guerrillas were forced to leave Lebanon after Israel's 1982 invasion. Refugee camps in Beirut later came under fierce attack from Syrian-backed Shi'ite Amal militias. Pro-Syrian Palestinian factions took over the camps, but the larger Fatah group remained influential.
In recent years the Islamist groups such as Hamas have gained popularity, while factions with an even more militant ideology, such as Fatah al-Islam, have won a foothold.
(Additional reporting by Nadim Ladki in Beirut)
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