By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, June 4, 2007
EIN AL-HILWEH, Lebanon, June 3 -- Islamic radicals attacked Lebanon's army from a second Palestinian refugee camp Sunday, sending residents fleeing through gun and rocket fire and heightening fears that the country faces a gravely destabilizing offensive by the militant groups that hide out in the country's 12 crowded camps.
Sunday's clash occurred near the southern city of Sidon on the outskirts of Ein al-Hilweh, the country's largest camp, with at least 45,000 inhabitants.
"It's time the army comes into the camps and cleans these people out," said Abu Rani, 36, a driver. He was among hundreds of Palestinian men, women and children streaming into a mosque on Ein al-Hilweh's edge for shelter as night fell. "It would be a relief to everyone, the Palestinians and the Lebanese."
Fighting at the camp broke out as Lebanese forces pressed a third week of siege against another radical group in a camp to the north, Nahr al-Bared, outside the city of Tripoli. Unlike past days of heavy shelling, much of Sunday's fighting at Nahr al-Bared appeared at close range, with heavy machine guns and automatic weapons sounding for hours.
The fighting at Nahr al-Bared involves Fatah al-Islam, a group believed to be made up largely of fighters who are neither Palestinian nor Lebanese but are from other Arab and Islamic countries as far away as Bangladesh, according to Lebanese leaders. The group claims inspiration from al-Qaeda and says it aims to bring Islamic law to the Palestinian camps and then to take on Israel.
The insurgents at Ein al-Hilweh, by contrast, are considered by many to be more ragtag outlaws than Islamic fighters driven by ideology. The group, Jund al-Sham, is mostly Lebanese but has strong links to neighboring Syria.
The two armed groups have in common their choice of havens inside Lebanon's refugee camps. About 400,000 Palestinian refugees live in Lebanon, the majority in the camps. Lebanon's army mostly has stayed out of the camps, in accordance with a 1969 agreement. That autonomy has left the Palestine Liberation Organization and a variety of other Palestinian groups controlling the various camps to deal with the growing number of outside Islamic militant groups that have found shelter there.
Ein al-Hilweh has long been considered one of the roughest of the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon.
"The people are waiting for the PLO to take care of these people who come into the camps and use the camps for fighting," one middle-age woman in a black head scarf and robe said in the mosque courtyard. In the dark, the woman called out the names of her sons, separated from her in the confusion.
Authorities said Jund al-Sham fighters opened the attack here by firing rocket-propelled grenades at an army checkpoint on the camp's edge. Residents and authorities described three hours of fighting with heavy machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons. Lebanese troops moved armored vehicles to the camp's edge, residents said.
"I saw stores burning," said Nour, a 9-year-old whose mother had hustled the girl and her five brothers and sisters out of an outlying neighborhood when bullets started pinging off the walls of their house. The family took time only to stuff schoolbooks into the book bags on the children's backs.
Relief agencies said no more than four soldiers and civilians were wounded, and no deaths were reported. Khaled Aref, a representative of the mainstream Fatah group in the camp, said Palestinian factions there had decided to "isolate Jund al-Sham and not give way to any attempt to import any of what's happening in Nahr al-Bared."
Clashes similar to Sunday's are not rare in the camp. But in light of the far more violent uprising by Fatah al-Islam in the north, the fighting this time has taken on a more ominous tone. Some residents said Jund al-Sham attacked after the army ignored a deadline the group had set for lifting the siege on Nahr al-Bared. There was no immediate report of any coordination between the two groups, however.
The standoff at Nahr al-Bared began May 20 when Fatah al-Islam fighters attacked Lebanese forces in Tripoli and from inside the camp. More than 30 Lebanese forces and an estimated 20 to 30 civilians have been killed, along with an unknown number of fighters. Lebanese leaders say the military will continue its offensive until Fatah al-Islam surrenders or is destroyed.
A Lebanese government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Sunday that the army was working on enforcing its positions and rotating troops but that no "breakthrough operation" was expected for at least 36 hours. Soldiers who had taken up positions on the far side of some of the shops facing the camps have stacked the parking lots high with crates of ammunition.
As many as 10,000 civilians are believed to still be inside the northern camp. Fathi Abou Ali, an official of the Popular Front to Liberate Palestine, a smaller armed faction in the camp, said many residents have gathered in three neighborhoods of the camp, and that they and other Palestinian factions are blocking Fatah al-Islam from entering the areas. International aid and rights agencies gave similar reports, but there was no confirmation from the military.
Special correspondent Alia Ibrahim in Tripoli contributed to this report.