oPt + 1 more

Calm returns to Lebanon camp after 33-day battle

By Yara Bayoumy

NAHR AL-BARED, Lebanon, June 22 (Reuters) - An uneasy calm settled over a Palestinian refugee camp in north Lebanon on Friday after the Lebanese army and Islamist militants declared an end to 33 days of fighting in which 172 people were killed.

The battle for Nahr al-Bared camp was Lebanon's worst outbreak of internal violence since its 1975-90 civil war.

Smoke still curled from buildings shattered by shelling at one entrance to the camp, but only a few explosions and a brief rattle of gunfire after dawn broke the silence.

Defence Minister Elias al-Murr declared victory over the Fatah al-Islam group on Thursday, saying troops had seized all its positions and would besiege the camp until surviving militants surrender. Demining work would also continue.

Fatah al-Islam, believed to have had a few hundred fighters when the battle began, relayed to Palestinian mediators its agreement to cease fire shortly after Murr's late-night announcement.

Murr said many of the group's leaders had been killed and remaining fighters had pulled back from the edges of Nahr al-Bared into civilian areas deep inside the camp.

He said the army would keep up its siege until all the militants gave themselves up, including their leader, Shaker al-Abssi.

"They have to surrender ... It's not good enough to say Abssi was killed. If he is dead, give us the body," Murr said.

The fighting had been focused on militant strongholds on the camp's outskirts. Security forces are barred from entering Lebanon's 12 Palestinian refugee camps by a 1969 Arab agreement.

At least 172 people, including 76 soldiers, 60 militants and 36 civilians and non-combatants, were killed in the fighting. Much of the camp, home to about 40,000 refugees, was destroyed.

Palestinian sources said at least seven senior Fatah al-Islam members were killed, including a Saudi cleric named Abu al-Haris. The group's military commander Abu Hurayra and its spiritual mentor Abu Bakr were both badly wounded. Its senior spokesman, Abu Salim Taha, was also wounded, the sources said.

The army says Fatah al-Islam started the conflict on May 20 by attacking its posts. The group, which includes fighters from across the Arab world, says it has been acting in self-defence.

Murr said some of the fighters belonged to al Qaeda. Fatah al-Islam's Abssi has said the group has no organisational ties to Osama bin Laden's network but shares its militant ideology.

Most of the camp's residents fled during the early days of the fighting to shelter in the nearby Beddawi refugee camp.


Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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