Lebanese Army Battles Guerrillas; Many Killed

By Alia Ibrahim
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, May 21, 2007

TRIPOLI, Lebanon, May 20 -- The Lebanese army battled a militant faction based in a Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon on Sunday in some of the worst internal fighting since the country's 1975-90 civil war. At least 23 soldiers and 19 militants were killed in clashes that began before dawn and continued through the day.

Residents said the fighting erupted around 2 a.m. in a relatively upscale neighborhood of Tripoli when police tried to arrest a group believed responsible for a bank robbery a day earlier in a coastal town southeast of the city.

In staccato fashion, the clashes then spread through Tripoli, Lebanon's second-largest city, and to the outskirts of the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp, where the group, Fatah al-Islam, is based. Lebanese tanks pounded suspected militant positions, and residents said they were stunned by the size of the group's arsenal.

The fighting marked another manifestation of instability in a country mired in a months-long crisis that has pitted an opposition led by the Shiite Muslim movement Hezbollah against the government. The fighting Sunday was not directly connected to that crisis, which began last fall, but residents and politicians have long spoken of growing radicalism in the Palestinian camps, particularly around Tripoli.

Some pro-government ministers accused Syria of fomenting the strife as a warning against progress in setting up an international tribunal to try the suspected killers of former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri, who was assassinated in a 2005 car bombing in Beirut. The government, backed by the United States and France, has pushed for the creation of the tribunal over the objections of some opposition leaders, who are backed by Iran and Syria.

The United States, Britain and France circulated a draft resolution at the U.N. Security Council last week that would establish the tribunal, even without a consensus among Lebanese leaders. A preliminary U.N. inquiry implicated Syrian and Lebanese officials in Hariri's assassination, although Syria has denied any role.

"I have no doubt that the Syrians are behind this. They have been sending us messages and this is the translation -- we proceed with the international tribunal and they proceed to mess with security. This is their message," said Ahmad Fatfat, minister of youth and sports, who spoke Sunday from his house in Tripoli.

A statement faxed Sunday to the Reuters news agency from a group claiming to be Fatah al-Islam said the army had launched an unprovoked attack.

"We warn the Lebanese army of the consequences of continuing the provocative acts against our mujaheddin who will open the gates of fire . . . against [the army] and against the whole of Lebanon," the statement read, according to the news agency.

The ideology of Fatah al-Islam is a matter of debate in Lebanon. Some pro-government leaders see it as a front for Syrian intelligence, a contention Syria denies. Others see it as affiliated with al-Qaeda, or at least related in doctrine. Security sources said Pakistanis and Bangladeshis were among the dead Sunday.

The group is a splinter of a dissident Palestinian faction that broke off from Yasser Arafat's movement in the 1980s. Security sources had estimated the group had perhaps 300 fighters -- among them Lebanese, Syrians and Palestinians -- but they, too, were surprised by the fighters' preparedness and arsenal.

The army and Fatah al-Islam brought reinforcements into Tripoli and its outskirts throughout the day. Rumors swirled of suicide bombers and booby-trapped buildings. Internal security forces lay in the streets, trying to target rooftop snipers.

"We all knew this was coming. We've been hearing about arms smuggling and preparations for terror actions. Everyone knows this, even children, but we never thought it would happen here," said Mahmoud Rawi, a driver from Tripoli, watching the fighting.

"The war is back! The war is back!" a man shouted as he ran by.

Army units surrounded the refugee camp, home to 40,000 Palestinians, and fired tank and mortar rounds into the camp and the neighboring village of Mohamara, where the fighters were believed to have taken refuge.

While clashes near the Palestinian camps, especially with Fatah al-Islam, have become almost routine, this was the first time fighting had spilled into a major city.

Late Sunday, in a mainly Christian area of east Beirut, an explosion near a shopping mall killed a woman and injured at least nine other people, according to news services.

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