By Yara Bayoumy
BEDDAWI, Lebanon, May 23 (Reuters) - Thousands of Palestinians fled a badly damaged refugee camp on Wednesday after a fragile truce halted fighting between the Lebanese army and al Qaeda-inspired militants.
Vehicles choked the main road out of the Nahr al-Bared camp, where the Lebanese army had been battling the Fatah al-Islam militant group since Sunday in Lebanon's worst internal fighting since the 1975-1990 civil war.
"It's mass destruction in there. The dead people are strewn on the streets. Nobody is picking them up," said camp resident Awad Saeed Awad as he boarded a bus for the nearby Beddawi camp where many were seeking refuge.
"We haven't seen Fatah al-Islam. They're probably hiding in the alleyways."
At least 22 militants, 32 soldiers and 27 civilians have been killed in the fighting, which initially erupted in both the port city of Tripoli and Nahr al-Bared, home to 40,000 Palestinians.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said there were no accurate figures on casualties because of the danger of moving in and out of the camp, which had been heavily shelled by the army.
At Beddawi camp, hundreds packed the corridors and classrooms of a school, sleeping on mattresses on the floor.
"We couldn't even bury the dead," said Mona Diab, 27. "It gives me the chills. We came only with the clothes we are wearing."
The fighting eased on Tuesday afternoon following an informal truce. A military source said there was calm but added "the matter is not over".
"It will only end with the final end of this gang", he said.
Aid workers said some residents had not left the camp. "It's very dangerous and risky to move inside the camp due to sniping," said Hoda Elturk, a spokeswoman for the U.N. agency which cares for Palestinians.
Fatah al-Islam, a Sunni Islamist militant group led by a Palestinian, emerged in 2006 when it split from Fatah al-Intifada (Fatah Uprising), a Syrian-backed Palestinian group based in Lebanon.
The group made its base in Nahr al-Bared, one of 12 Palestinian camps which are home to some 400,000 refugees in Lebanon. The army is not allowed into the camps under a 1969 Arab agreement.
"They're a breeding ground for any type of mishap," security analyst Timur Goksel said. "You are in a sovereign country and you have these autonomous enclaves."
Small factions with similar ideologies to Fatah al-Islam have also emerged in Ain el-Hilweh camp in south Lebanon.
The government had pledged to root out Fatah al-Islam, which members of the governing coalition say is a tool of Syrian intelligence. Syria denies any link with the group.
The authorities say they have arrested Saudi, Algerian, Tunisian and Lebanese members of the group, which has little or no support among Palestinians. But army shelling has enraged camp residents.
Human Rights Watch said "the Lebanese army must take better precautions to prevent needless civilian deaths".
"Fatah al-Islam militants must not hide among civilians," said Joe Stork, the organisation's deputy Middle East director.
Arab governments, many of which have fought their own battles with Sunni Islamist militants, promised military assistance to the Beirut government at a special meeting on Tuesday. The United States, which supports the government, is considering a request from Beirut for more military assistance.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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