Lebanon + 1 more

Lebanon says will hit terrorism as truce holds

By Laila Bassam

BEIRUT, May 24 (Reuters) - Lebanon's prime minister vowed to stamp out an Islamist militant group that has been locked in fighting with the Lebanese army at a camp in the north of the country where a fragile truce held for a second day on Thursday.

Relief workers planned aid deliveries tothousands of Palestinians who were forced from a refugee camp by fighting between the army and militant group Fatah al-Islam, which is based in the camp. Dozens were killed in the bloodshed.

"We will not surrender to terrorism," Prime Minister Fouad Siniora said in a televised speech to his nation. "We will work on uprooting terrorism and finishing it off."

Siniora sought to assure Palestinians that his government was not targeting the 400,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon but was intent on uprooting the Fatah al-Islam group.

"There will not be strife or any feud between the Lebanese and the Palestinians," said Siniora.

He said Fatah al-Islam, which is led by a Palestinian, is a "terrorist organisation that claims to be Islamic and to defend Palestine" and was "trying to ride on the suffering of the Palestinian people and their struggle."

At least 22 militants and 32 soldiers have been killed in the clashes -- Lebanon's worst internal violence since the 1975-1990 civil war. Lebanon says between 50 and 60 militants have been killed and has told those remaining to surrender or face more military action.

Dozens of civilians have been killed in the Nahr al-Bared camp according to the accounts of Palestinians who have fled since the truce took hold on Tuesday.

Beirut has also been rocked by two bombs this week and a third struck east of the capital on Wednesday night. One person was killed in the blasts.

Palestinians were still trickling out of Nahr al-Bared camp on Thursday. Thousands have taken shelter in the nearby Beddawi refugee camp and the northern port city of Tripoli. Jamila Ahnab, 35, said she had been sheltering in a room with 20 people during the most fierce fighting earlier in the week, when Nahr al-Bared had been under heavy army shelling.

"A shell hit next to our house and the debris fell all over us," Ahnab said as she left the camp with her five children.

Rights group Amnesty International has criticised the army's use of heavy weapons, which has angered many of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.

UNRWA, the U.N. agency which cares for Palestinians, said around 12,000 people had left the camp since the lull in fighting on Tuesday. "There are still many people in the camp -- around 18,000," UNRWA spokeswoman Hoda Elturk said. "We are very concerned about the humanitarian conditions," she said. "Circulating in the camp is not very safe, although the ceasefire holds so far."

Fatah al-Islam is led by a Palestinian but has little support among Lebanon's Palestinian refugee community.

The faction shares the Sunni Islamist militant ideology of al Qaeda. The Lebanese authorities say they have arrested Saudi, Algerian, Tunisian, Syrian and Lebanese members of the group.

Anti-Syrian Lebanese leaders say Fatah al-Islam is a tool of Syrian intelligence. Damascus and the group deny the charge.

Some Lebanese leaders say this week's bombings and fighting aim to derail U.N. moves to set up a special tribunal for suspects behind political assassinations in Lebanon, including the 2005 killing of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri.

A U.N. inquiry has implicated Syrian and Lebanese security officials in the Hariri killing. Syria denies any involvement.

(Additional reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis, Tom Perry and Yara Bayoumy at Nahr al-Bared)


Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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