Palestinian camp bombarded for third day
TRIPOLI, Lebanon – Lebanon’s army pounded Islamic militants hiding in a bombed-out Palestinian refugee camp Sunday for the third straight day, while fighting erupted outside another camp in the south, stoking fears of widespread violence breaking out in the country.Fierce fighting has engulfed the outskirts of the Nahr el-Bared camp in northern Lebanon since Friday, when the Lebanese army – using tanks and artillery – launched an offensive to drive the Fatah Islam militants from their positions inside the settlement.But they have faced strong resistance and the relentless bombardments threaten to anger Palestinians in the country’s other refugee camps, possibly causing violence to spread.Near the southern city of Sidon, suspected members of the militant Islamic group Jund al-Sham fired a rocket-propelled-grenade at a Lebanese army checkpoint outside a camp Sunday, wounding at least five people, security officials said on customary condition of anonymity.The attack prompted a shootout between the troops and militants, causing people to flee into homes and mosques for safety. It was not clear if the attack was related to the conflict in the north, but several hardline Islamic groups have called on Muslims to support Fatah Islam.A senior Lebanese army officer said nine Lebanese troops have been killed in the fighting at the northern Nahr el-Bared camp since Friday, raising the army’s death toll to 44 since the standoff there began two weeks ago.At least 20 civilians and about 60 militants have also been killed, but that doesn’t include casualties in the last three days because relief organizations and journalists have been prohibited from entering the camp.Fatah Islam spokesman Abu Salim Taha told The Associated Press by phone that five militants, including a senior leader, had been killed and seven wounded since Friday.The Lebanese government repeated its demand for the militants in Nahr el-Bared to surrender, but Fatah Islam’s deputy leader defied the call in a telephone interview with the AP.”This is not only impossible, this is unthinkable. Our blood is cheaper than handing over our weapons and surrendering,” said Shehab al-Qaddour, who goes by the nom de guerre Abu Hureira.He also denied the army had made significant progress in its offensive. He said militants had ambushed advancing forces Sunday, pushing them back a few yards on the north edge of the camp.Security officials said the camp had been divided into three zones. The army and militants each controlled one zone, while Palestinian civilians and guerrillas controlled the third and were refusing the militants sanctuary. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.The army claimed the militants had taken up positions in mosques and humanitarian centers inside the camp, using civilians as “human shields.” It was not clear how the military knew this, and it was impossible to independently confirm the claim. The militants have denied the accusation.According to an Associated Press photographer near the camp, a Fatah Islam sniper could be seen moving from one destroyed building to another as Lebanese troops bombarded the structure from where he was shooting. Security officials said another militant was firing rocket-propelled grenades from the minaret of a mosque, but it was not clear if the army would strike it.The fighting between the army and Fatah Islam broke out in Tripoli and the nearby Nahr el-Bared camp on May 20. At least 22 soldiers and 17 militants were killed that day – the worst internal violence in Lebanon since the end of the 1975-90 civil war.Most of the camp’s 31,000 refugees have fled to the nearby Beddawi camp, but at least 5,000 are believed still inside.The standoff has raised concerns of more violence across Lebanon, which has 400,000 Palestinian refugees living in 12 impoverished and overcrowded camps scattered throughout the country. Armed groups, including Islamic militants, operate with near complete freedom in the camps.Sunday’s militant attack in Taamir, a residential area next to the Ein el-Hilweh camp near Sidon, wounded three Lebanese soldiers and two Palestinian passers-by, hospital officials said on customary condition of anonymity.Sultan Abuleinein, head of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah faction in Lebanon, told Lebanese Broadcasting Corp. TV that his group would try to stop the violence from spreading.”We are taking some measures on the ground to pull away these members and we will not allow this gang to drag the camp into a clash with the Lebanese army,” Abuleinein said, without elaborating on what measures had been taken.Jund al-Sham, which is Arabic for Soldiers of Historic Syria, has claimed responsibility or been blamed for a number of bombings and gunbattles, mainly in Lebanon and Syria. Syrian officials have portrayed it as the most active militant group in their country.—Associated Press writers Sam F. Ghattas and Bassem Mroue in Beirut and Ahmed Mantash in Sidon contributed to this report.
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