Lebanon Shells Refugee Camp

By Alia Ibrahim and Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, July 13, 2007

NAHR AL-BARED, Lebanon, July 12 -- Under cover of artillery fire, Lebanese troops advanced Thursday on positions held by al-Qaeda-influenced fighters holed up inside a Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon. Four soldiers and one civilian died in some of the heaviest fighting of the two-month standoff.

Tanks, gunboats and artillery pieces poured shells into the Nahr al-Bared camp at the rate of several rounds per minute for much of the day. In a statement, the military said it was making no final drive into the camp, only "tightening the noose" around fighters of the Fatah al-Islam movement. The group took root in the camp in northern Lebanon late last year, vowing to bring all 12 Palestinian camps in Lebanon under Islamic rule and then take on Israel.

Humanitarian workers evacuated 400 camp residents on Wednesday. Only a few hundred people, apparently the fighters and their families, are believed to remain of the estimated 40,000 refugees in the camp when fighting broke out between security forces and the extremists in late May.

Since then the army has taken control of the newer part of the camp. An estimated 90 soldiers have been killed in the fighting; it is not known how many Fatah al-Islam fighters or civilians have died.

Lebanese forces encountered sniper fire and booby-trapped buildings on Thursday as they advanced on gunmen's positions in the older part of the camp. At least 20 soldiers were wounded, military officials said. Sniper fire killed a man trying to cross a street outside the camp, authorities said.

Thursday's fighting came on the first anniversary of the launch of last summer's war between Israel and the Shiite movement Hezbollah, which is based in southern Lebanon. Hezbollah cabinet ministers resigned from the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora this past winter. Eight months of political paralysis has followed.

Siniora's allies accuse Syria and its Lebanese allies, including Hezbollah, of orchestrating violence, including the clashes at Nahr al-Bared, and political assassinations. The opposition, meanwhile, accuses the government of bending to U.S. will and monopolizing power.

Lebanese hold little hope for talks scheduled to start Saturday in France among rival Lebanese political leaders.

"This meeting will break the ice between the groups, but no one should expect any miracles from it," said Lebanese lawmaker Nabil de Freij.

In New York, prosecutor Serge Brammertz said U.N. investigators have identified a number of possible suspects in the February 2005 bombing that killed former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri and 22 others in Beirut.

New information about a van used in the bombing, about mobile phones used to track Hariri and about his political activities helped to pinpoint the suspects, wire services reported, quoting Brammertz.

Brammertz did not identify the possible suspects. Detlev Mehlis, his predecessor as chief investigator into Hariri's killing, had accused Syria of involvement.

Knickmeyer reported from Cairo.

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