By Alia Ibrahim
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, May 26, 2007
NAHR AL-BARED, Lebanon, May 25 -- U.S. military aid began arriving in Lebanon on Friday, Lebanese officials said, in order to resupply government troops battling a militant group in northern Lebanon whose leader claims links to al-Qaeda.
"Lebanon has received equipment from the U.S. as well as some Arab and European countries; such equipment will help the military deal with any terrorist challenge it is facing,' " Telecommunications Minister Marwan Hamade said.
The aid included munitions, body armor and helmets, said Ahmed Fatfat, a cabinet member from Tripoli in northern Lebanon, where fighting broke out Sunday between soldiers and members of Fatah al-Islam. The clashes spread to the Palestinian refugee camp at Nahr al-Bared, where the group is based.
Government forces used artillery to attack Fatah al-Islam in the camp during the most intense fighting Monday and Tuesday. The government said more than 30 soldiers were killed; Fatah al-Islam said 25 of its fighters died. Estimates of the civilian deaths range from one to more than 10.
The United States backs Lebanon's government, which is locked in a months-old political stalemate with the Shiite Hezbollah movement. Iran and Syria support Hezbollah, and many Lebanese suspect that Syria also supports Fatah al-Islam, a charge Syrian officials denied this week.
The U.S. assistance drew criticism from anti-government parties. "Terrorism becomes an excuse for American armed intervention" read a headline in the as-Safir newspaper. An editorial called the aid "suspicious" and said it was based on a misperception of the threat posed by the group, "as if the gangsters of Fatah al-Islam required an emergency assistance plan of the kind that the U.S. rarely undertakes."
Under a 1969 accord, Lebanese soldiers refrain from entering the country's 12 Palestinian refugee camps. The government has instructed the military to eradicate Fatah al-Islam from the Nahr al-Bared camp, although it was unclear how it would do so.
"The situation is calm, the army is capable of dealing with the situation, but we don't want to take any decision that could put civilians at risk," Hamade said.
"This situation is similar to the hijacking of an airplane -- we have to make sure the hostages are safe and then we move to deal with the terrorists. This is a terrorist situation of the most vicious kind. There are thousands of people taken hostage," Hamade said.
Hamade said that the army as well as the Lebanese government were encouraging residents to leave the camp and that 70 percent of the population of about 35,000 had left by Friday.
A report by the U.N. agency that administers the camp said 18,000 people remained inside Thursday.
Another possibility, officials said, is that Palestinians groups would take action against Fatah al-Islam. But General Sultan Abou Enein, military commander of the mainstream Fatah faction, said Palestinian groups allied with Syria were rejecting any military action against Fatah al-Islam. "There are very limited options, and they are all very bad. The only solution is that they -- Fatah al-Islam -- leave the camp like they entered it," he said from the Rashidieh camp in Tyre, a city in southern Lebanon.
Fatah al-Islam emerged in November, announcing a plan to "fight Zionism and Americanized governments" in coordination with al-Qaeda. The group's members asserted responsibility this year for twin bus bombings in the eastern Beirut area of Ain Alaq. Estimates of the group's size range from several hundred to several thousand.
Despite occasional outbreaks of shelling Friday, an informal cease-fire stayed largely intact. Roads blocked by the army since Sunday were opened. The military enforced its positions at the southern and northern entrances of the camp, forbidding civilians as well as journalists to enter.