Lebanon + 2 more

Lebanon camp battle enters 4th week, 5 soldiers die

By Nazih Siddiq

NAHR AL-BARED, Lebanon, June 10 (Reuters) - Fighting between the Lebanese army and al Qaeda-inspired militants in north Lebanon entered its fourth week on Sunday and five soldiers died from wounds sustained in heavy battles the previous day.

The army has now lost 57 soldiers in its conflict with the Fatah al-Islam group, a military source said. At least 42 militants and 31 civilians have also been killed in Lebanon's worst internal violence since the 1975-1990 civil war.

"There is tense calm today," the military source told Reuters. The army on Saturday heavily shelled the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp where Fatah al-Islam is based.

Sporadic bursts of machinegun fire were heard early on Sunday at the camp -- home to some 40,000 before the fighting forced thousands to flee, mostly to a nearby Palestinian camp.

The army says the militants triggered the conflict on May 20 by attacking its positions around the camp and on the outskirts of the nearby city of Tripoli. Fatah al-Islam says it has been acting in self defence and has vowed to fight to the death.

A Palestinian source in the camp said at least one civilian was killed on Saturday but the toll could be higher. "He was hit in the chest and bled to death because there were no ambulances," the source said.

Rescue workers have been unable to give an accurate death toll because of the difficulty of moving in the camp -- a sprawling warren of alleyways on the Mediterranean.

The lull in violence on Sunday allowed rescue workers to remove two bodies from the camp. It was not clear when they were killed or whether they were civilians or militants.


Relief workers estimate that 3,000 to 7,000 civilians are still inside the camp. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said those trapped wanted to flee but organising a mass evacuation was impossible because of the fighting.

"There are many people who want to get out. But it is very difficult to group them in one place," ICRC spokeswoman Virginia de la Guardia said. At least 80 people filtered out of the camp through army checkpoints during Sunday's lull in fighting.

The army is not allowed into Palestinian camps in Lebanon under the terms of a 1969 Arab agreement.

The fighting has further undermined stability in Lebanon, already paralysed by a seven-month-old political crisis.

Deadly clashes erupted last week in the south at the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, and five bombs have targeted civilian areas in and near Beirut since May 20.

The Islamic Action Front, a Lebanese organisation grouping Sunni Muslim politicians and clerics, has been trying to persuade Fatah al-Islam fighters to surrender.

But Fathi Yakan, the leader of the Front, said his mediators had been unable to speak to Fatah al-Islam leader Shaker al-Abssi. "I do not think those speaking in the name of the group are able to give a decision. The fate of (Abssi) is not known," Yakan told Reuters.

Abu Salim Taha, a Fatah al-Islam spokesman, told Reuters late on Saturday that Abssi, a Palestinian, was still alive.

Abssi and his fighters, including Arabs from Saudi Arabia, Syria and Lebanon, share the militant Sunni Islamist ideology of al Qaeda but do not claim organisational ties to the network. (Additional reporting by Tom Perry in Beirut)


Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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