By Alia Ibrahim
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, September 3, 2007
NAHR AL-BARED, Lebanon, Sept. 2 -- The Lebanese army seized control Sunday of a Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon after a fierce firefight with members of an al-Qaeda-inspired group, ending a siege that lasted more than three months.
In a failed last stand, at least 37 Fatah al-Islam fighters were killed as they tried to flee the Nahr al-Bared camp at dawn, according to a security source speaking on condition of anonymity.
Local news media also reported the death of the group's leader, Shaker al-Abssi, citing security and medical sources. Security sources said DNA tests were being run to confirm the death. Abssi, a Palestinian linked to the slain leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, had not been seen since early in the fighting.
Three soldiers died Sunday, increasing to 158 the number killed in the standoff, which began May 20. About 40 civilians were killed. Dozens of Fatah al-Islam fighters also died.
The siege at Nahr al-Bared began when police raided Fatah al-Islam hideouts in the nearby northern city of Tripoli after the group's fighters had killed soldiers at army checkpoints near the refugee camp. Since then, fighting has forced more than 30,000 refugees to evacuate the camp, including families of members of Fatah al-Islam in late August.
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.
Lebanon remains deeply split between a pro-Western government and the Hezbollah-led opposition, supported by Iran and Syria. In Beirut, officials from across the spectrum of Lebanon's political divide congratulated the army.
President Emile Lahoud said the "army has achieved what superpowers couldn't in confronting terrorism."
In a televised speech, Prime Minister Fouad Siniora said, "This is the greatest national victory for Lebanon over the terrorists in Nahr-al Bared, and this is an hour of pride, victory and joy."
Observers warned it would be premature to consider the victory the end of Lebanon's war against Fatah al-Islam or similar groups.
"This is the end of the Shaker al-Abssi cell and of the Nahr al-Bared crisis, but what happened today couldn't be considered a victory against terrorism threats in Lebanon," said Hazem al-Amin, a journalist who has reported extensively on Islamic groups. "On the contrary, we know very well that other cells, if not of Fatah al-Islam then at least of very similar groups, exist and in abundance."
The groups' complex composition makes them difficult to track and control. Those killed and arrested in this summer's fighting include Islamic radicals from Tripoli, fighters with ties to Syrian intelligence and Palestinian fighters, as well as al-Qaeda members from Saudi Arabia, Yemen and elsewhere, Lebanese authorities have said.
Those fighters, with different backgrounds and sometimes different agendas, were believed to be training under the command of Abssi, a Sunni who was imprisoned in Syria and who some Lebanese suspect was sent by Syrian intelligence to create unrest in the country. The Syrian military ended its 29-year presence in Lebanon in 2005.
"When the Syrians send someone like Abssi to Lebanon, they know very well how capable he will be in attracting many members, especially in places like Tripoli," Amin said.
Villagers in areas near Nahr al-Bared expressed concern about further activities by terrorist groups.
"This is not the end of it, I know it," said Mona Hoblos, who lives in the nearby town of Bhanine. "Some of those snakes are still underground."
Hoblos, 55, and others from the area rushed to the camp to celebrate the end of the siege. "We've been living in terror," she said. "We haven't been able to sleep because of the bombing at night, or to get out of our houses because of the snipers at day."
Military analysts say the army scored a victory, despite the heavy death toll and the time it took to bring the camp under control.
"Things have to be looked at from the broader angle. The plan of this group was to establish an Islamic emirate in Tripoli. There were certainly sacrifices, but they were also certainly worth it," said Gen. Elias Hanna, a retired officer and military expert.
By afternoon, while its soldiers continued a manhunt in surrounding farms and mountains for fighters who escaped, the army announced its control of the camp by shooting guns. Soon after, celebrations started.
A road that hours earlier had looked like a military zone transformed within minutes into a carnival scene.
Folk dancers in yellow satin shirts and red pants blocked the main road for an hour, jumping to the rhythm of traditional music.
Women on balconies threw rice. In villages from Tripoli to Nahr al-Bared, boys and girls carrying Lebanese flags ran behind army tanks with soldiers firing guns in the air and raising victory signs.
"This victory is the best thing that happened in our lives," shouted a woman from an open-topped car filled with army supporters. Behind them, columns of smoke filled the sky above the camp, now reduced to rubble.