Concerned about the fighting between the Lebanese army and an armed group inside a Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon, the chief United Nations humanitarian official emphasized today the need to ensure access to the camp and called for maximum restraint in dealing with the situation inside the confined civilian-filled area.
Speaking at a Headquarters press conference this morning, John Holmes, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, said the mere fact that heavy fighting had been going on inside the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp for several days was not acceptable. While the Lebanese Government had the right to deal with an armed groups conducting unacceptable activities on its territory, it should exercise maximum restraint inside the civilian area, particularly with the use of heavy weaponry, tank fire and artillery. Some 20,000 civilians, including women and children, were trapped inside the camp, and another 8,000 to 10,000 who had fled today, following the establishment of a truce, also needed assistance.
Mr. Holmes, who was accompanied by Karen Koning AbuZayd, Commissioner-General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), said it was also outrageous that a United Nations convoy trying to distribute relief supplies in the beleaguered camp had been fired upon and shelled yesterday. That incident had resulted in casualties among civilian bystanders and those responsible were not known. The incident was still under investigation, but its very occurrence was a particularly egregious violation of international humanitarian law.
Ms. AbuZaydadded that the convoy's three trucks, which had to be abandoned, had been loaded with basic supplies, including baby powder, food, water and medical supplies. Some of those who had fled Nahr al-Bared were now in Tripoli or at the nearby Beddawi camp. They were all accommodated in private homes, several UNRWA schools and a large exhibition hall. However, it was also important for humanitarian workers to gain access to the Nahr al-Bared camp so they could evaluate needs and start repairing the damage, if the truce held.
Asked who was responsible for policing the camp, and for confirmation of reports that many of those shooting from inside the camp were neither Palestinian nor Lebanese, Ms. AbuZayd replied that refugee camps in Lebanon were self-policed and the army was stationed outside.
She said the armed group involved in this week's fighting had shown up several months ago and had consisted mainly of foreigners as far as she knew. "We have heard of all sorts of nationalities, including Bangladeshis and Yemenis, and so on." The Palestinian refugees in the camp had been very unhappy about that group and had been trying to persuade them to leave. However, there was no way "to really make sure who goes in or who goes out, unless the army itself had stopped them as they went in".
Responding to another question, she said the Lebanese army was attempting to target the areas where those foreigners were living. "Of course, it has not succeeded, as we see a number of civilians who have been killed." Among the casualties, were an UNRWA teacher and the wife of an Agency medical officer.
Asked whether UNRWA sought an evacuation of the entire camp, she said that was up to the refugees themselves, if they wanted to move. However, the Agency was making plans to provide anyone wishing to leave with a place to go.
A correspondent asked whether Nahr al-Bared was the only camp infiltrated by foreigner fighters, to which she said that was the case as far as she knew. As for what UNRWA could have done to prevent the fighting, and who was responsible for the security breach, somebody had not been doing their job. The Agency was not a police force and did not even run the camps. It administered only its own installations, making sure they were used exclusively by refugees.
Asked why Mr Holmes had urged only the Lebanese Government to show restraint, the Emergency Relief Coordinator said he did not know exactly who the members of the armed group were, reiterating that the Government had the right, in its own territory, to deal with armed groups "posing this kind of problem". Essentially, the problem was that an armed group was sheltering behind and among the civilian population, and his suggestion had been that, in trying to deal with that serious situation, the Lebanese Government should exercise maximum restraint, because "once you start using heavy-calibre weapons in a civilian area, civilians are victims".
In response to a related question, he said possible actions to prevent civilian losses could include truces, which would give people more possibilities to leave and provide greater access for humanitarian workers.
A correspondent asked how all the layers of formal and informal security had failed to notice foreigners with heavy weapons, allowing them to infiltrate the camp.
"We are asking ourselves the same question," Ms. AbuZaid replied, adding that, in general, some camps were much better policed than others.
Asked about the number of casualties, Mr. Holmes said he did not have the figures. There had been talk about bodies in the streets, but the United Nations had no reliable information, which was one reason why humanitarian workers needed to get into the camp to establish the number of dead and wounded.
"Until we get in, we don't know," Ms. AbuZayd added, noting that public health was another real worry as the camp had had no water or electricity since Sunday.
In response to a suggestion that peacekeepers from southern Lebanon be used to establish security and improve the humanitarian situation in the camp, Mr. Holmes said it would be very difficult to change the mandate of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) to deal with problems in the north.
Regarding the situation in the Gaza Strip, Ms. AbuZayd said she had been away from that area for only a week, yet the situation had changed in that time. The internal fighting was over, "and now they are trying to deal with targeting from the Israelis, and that is preoccupying everybody right now". The good news, received today from the UNRWA Director in Gaza, was that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had held a series of meetings with Prime Minister Ismael Haniyeh and the factions. UNRWA was hoping "to at least keep things quiet on the internal front".
For information media - not an official record