By Alia Ibrahim and Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 24, 2007
NAHR AL-BARED, Lebanon, May 23 -- Lebanese army and government officials pledged Wednesday to renew their assault on a Palestinian refugee camp unless an Islamic extremist group barricaded inside surrendered. Such an attack could cause more civilian deaths following what one international human rights agency called indiscriminate fire on the camp of more than 30,000 people in recent days.
An unofficial cease-fire that began Tuesday largely held Wednesday, allowing roughly half of the camp's residents to flee. Doctors inside the camp gave a preliminary estimate of 20 to 30 civilians killed during three days of fighting, in which army tanks and artillery fired scores of rounds into the camp against the heavily armed Fatah al-Islam group. At least 31 troops and an unknown number of Fatah al-Islam fighters have died in the Lebanese military's biggest engagement since the 1975-90 civil war.
Nadim Houry, a Lebanon-based official with Human Rights Watch, faulted the Lebanese army for what he called indiscriminate shelling of the camp and for failing to open a corridor for civilians to get out early on. The army's lack of field intelligence about the camp "cannot be an excuse for shelling indiscriminately," Houry said by telephone from Beirut. "The laws of war are pretty clear about that.''
The army directorate of information issued a statement denying the bombing of civilian locations.
Storming the camp would be prohibited under a 1969 accord concerning Palestinian refugee camps. While Lebanon's parliament eased the prohibition in the 1980s, officials here have refrained from sending outside forces into the camps, in part for fear of new massacres such as the militia killings of hundreds of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps during the Israeli invasion in 1982.
Lebanese forces moved near the gates of the camp Wednesday.
"There is no compromise that could be reached with Fatah al-Islam," said Ahmad Fatfat, minister of sports and youth and a legislator from the nearby city of Tripoli. "They can either surrender and go to trial, or fight till the end and die fighting."
Fatfat said Palestinian leaders from the camp, as well as the heads of extremist Islamic groups from Tripoli, were negotiating with Fatah al-Islam for its surrender. Otherwise, he said, the army "will have to do what it has to do, even if this meant going back to bombing the camp, or even going inside the camp for a little period of time."
Fatah al-Islam said it was holding firm. "We're committed to the cease-fire, but the demand of surrender is not acceptable to us. If they want to fight us, we will fight back," Abu Salim Taha, a Fatah al-Islam official, said by telephone.
Lebanese and Palestinian officials raised the prospect of sending in militiamen from other Palestinian factions who would know the layout and hiding places of the camp better than the Lebanese army.
"Everyone -- Palestinians and Lebanese -- agree that this Fatah al-Islam is a terrorist group that needs to be terminated, but we're still negotiating a solution that will respect Lebanon's sovereignty without compromising the security of the camp's civil society," said Col. Khaled Aref, an official with the Fatah armed group in the Ain Helwe Palestinian refugee camp a mile south of Sidon.
Fatah al-Islam, a breakaway faction of the longer-standing Fatah militia, was founded in the camp last year by a Palestinian with self-declared links to al-Qaeda figures. Shaker al-Abssi has said in interviews and leaflets that he wants to bring the 12 Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon under Islamic law and then open a campaign against Israel.
Some Lebanese accuse Syria of backing the group. It is believed to have had no more than 300 members when the fighting began.
"We suffered from those Fatah al-Islam more than anybody else, and now we're paying the price again," said Abdel Hamid Najjar, a resident who used the cease-fire to flee to the nearby Baddawi refugee camp with 26 relatives. On Wednesday, Najjar crowded them into a 10th-grade classroom at a school that had been turned into a shelter for the new arrivals.
"This is a Syrian-Lebanese war and we're the fuel they are burning for this war," Najjar said. "The army was bombing us, our houses have been destroyed, we had no food and no water."
Najjar and other camp members said less than 10 percent of Fatah al-Islam's members were Palestinians, and fewer than five of them were long-term camp residents. Fighters including Syrians, Lebanese, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis arrived at the camp last summer and imposed themselves by power of arms, residents said.
"They came with women and children -- how could we fight them or shoot at them? They started issuing statements saying that they were true Muslims and that we should follow their lead," said Sana Najjar, 36.
On Wednesday night, a bomb wounded two people in the Druze town of Alayh, eight miles southeast of Beirut. In the capital, streets normally lively at night were deserted except for security forces at extra checkpoints.
Knickmeyer reported from Beirut.