NAHR AL-BARED, Lebanon, May 25 (Reuters) - The United States sent military aid to Lebanon on Friday and the Lebanese army deployed extra troops to a Palestinian camp where it has been battling Islamist militants this week.
A fragile truce held between the army and the Fatah al-Islam militant group in northern Lebanon at the Nahr al-Bared camp, where the faction is based.
The fighting has killed at least 33 soldiers and 25 militants -- Lebanon's worst internal violence since the 1975-1990 civil war. Thousands of Palestinian refugees have fled the camp, where Palestinian sources say at least 11 civilians have been killed and 100 wounded.
UNRWA, the U.N. agency which cares for Palestinian refugees, said around 15,000 were still in the camp, home to some 40,000 before it came under heavy army shelling earlier in the week.
"The humanitarian situation in Nahr al-Bared is deteriorating," UNRWA spokeswoman Hoda Elturk said. "We have our trucks full of food and water ready," she said, but added: "It's not secure enough for our staff to enter."
Fatah al-Islam and the army exchanged heavy machinegun fire for half an hour on Thursday night. Sporadic skirmishes continued overnight but calm was restored on Friday morning.
Extra Lebanese soldiers arrived at the camp, which the army is not allowed to enter under a 1969 Arab agreement, witnesses said. The 40,000-strong army is already stretched with significant deployments along the border with Israel in south Lebanon, Syria to the north and east and in and around Beirut.
Many army units deployed in Beirut for months to stem rising sectarian tensions amid a deep political crisis, appear to have left their positions and headed north, witnesses said.
Beirut had requested more military aid from Washington after fighting erupted on Sunday. Security sources said the United States had notified the army that the supplies were en route.
At least four Arab military supply planes arrived at Beirut airport carrying ammunition from U.S. depots in the region, security sources said. At least two more flights were scheduled.
Arab states, many of which have fought their own battles with Sunni Islamist militants, have also pledged military aid to Beirut. The United States has voiced support for the government, calling Fatah al-Islam "a brutal group of violent extremists".
Lebanese leaders have vowed to stamp out the group, which is led by a Palestinian but has little support among Lebanon's Palestinian refugee community of around 400,000. But military analysts say it will be very difficult for the army to deal a decisive blow to Fatah al-Islam unless it goes into the camp.
Lebanon's defence ministry estimates between 50 and 60 militants have been killed in the fighting, which the army says started after Fatah al-Islam launched unprovoked attacks on soldiers. The militants say they have acted in self-defence.
Thousands of Palestinians have fled the camp during a fragile truce which began on Tuesday. Most are sheltering in a nearby refugee camp where relief workers are delivering aid.
Fatah al-Islam is inspired by the Sunni Islamist militant group 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.
(Additional reporting by Nadim Ladki and Tom Perry in Beirut)
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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