Posted by Joshua on Monday, May 21st, 2007
Lebanese Troops Fight Islamists; Dozens Are Slain.By HASSAN M. FATTAH and NADA BAKRITRIPOLI, New York TimesMay 21, 2007.TRIPOLI, Lebanon, May 20 — Fierce clashes erupted between Lebanese Army soldiers and Islamic militants in the vicinity of a Palestinian refugee camp here on Sunday, leaving 22 Lebanese soldiers and 17 militants dead and dozens injured in one of the most significant challenges to the army since the end of Lebanon’s bloody civil war..The confrontation with the Islamist group, Fatah al-Islam, raised fears of a wider battle to rout militants in the rest of Lebanon’s 12 refugee camps, where radical Islam has been gaining in recent years. That, in turn, raised the possibility of a deadly conclusion to the crisis, placing strains on the embattled government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora..While anxious not to seem weak in the face of the militant challenge, military experts say, the government and the military also want to avoid any scenes that might draw comparisons to the Israeli attacks on Palestinian camps in the West Bank and Gaza..Many of the complex crosscurrents of Lebanon’s politics were on display in the crisis. The army, under an agreement with the Palestinian leadership and Arab countries, was not allowed to enter the camp. Lebanese citizens, who hold the Palestinians responsible for sparking the civil war in 1975, cheered the army on the streets of Tripoli and outside the camp..Syria, which Lebanon accuses of backing Fatah al-Islam, closed several border crossings in the area. And the fighting broke out just as the Security Council had taken up a resolution to try suspects tied to the February 2005 assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri. Syria has been accused in previous investigations of ordering the killing, but vigorously denies any connection..Tensions rose further late Sunday night when a car bomb exploded in a nearly empty parking lot in a Christian section of eastern Beirut, killing one person, wounding 12 others and sparking fears of an orchestrated terrorist campaign. Last month, Lebanese authorities charged four members of Fatah al-Islam with bombing two commuter buses carrying Lebanese Christians in another Christian district..Fatah al-Islam has been a growing concern for security authorities in Lebanon and much of the region. Intelligence officials say it counts between 150 and 200 fighters in its ranks and subscribes to the fundamentalist precepts of Al Qaeda..The group’s leader, Shakir al-Abssi, is a fugitive Palestinian and former associate of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the former leader of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia who was killed last year in Iraq. Both men were sentenced to death in absentia for the 2002 murder of an American diplomat, Lawrence Foley, in Jordan..In the six months since he arrived from Syria, Mr. Abssi has established a base of operations at the Nahr al Bared Palestinian refugee camp on the northern outskirts of this city, and the scene of the fighting on Sunday.What began as a raid on several homes in Tripoli in pursuit of suspected bank robbers connected to Fatah al-Islam quickly escalated into an open confrontation with the group at their stronghold in the camp..Three soldiers and four militants were killed in the early morning confrontation, said a Lebanese security official, who was not authorized to speak publicly. Hours later, they said, militants tied to the group attacked an army patrol in the Koura region south of Tripoli, killing four more soldiers. The gunmen also attacked soldiers who were passing by unaware of the fighting, said Lebanon’s information minister, Ghazi Aridi..The fighting raged throughout the afternoon at the camp, home to about 40,000 refugees, as army reinforcements rushed to the scene and tanks began shelling targets in the camp. Militants who had taken positions around the outskirts of the camp fired back, keeping the army at bay..Four children and three women were injured in the shelling, said one medical official, who requested anonymity because his organization forbids members from speaking to the news media. But residents inside the camp, reached by telephone, said at least two civilians had been killed and more than 45 had been injured in the shelling..There was no independent verification of the residents’ claims.By nightfall, the army had regained control of several outposts surrounding the camp, but the siege of the camp continued. Soldiers manned checkpoints in the area and filled the streets late Sunday night and armored personnel carriers rumbled through the city..Many residents of Tripoli welcomed the army into town, and onlookers clapped whenever tanks fired shells into the camp, bringing to the surface longstanding tensions between Lebanese and Palestinians..“This should have happened from the start,” said one man, who stood in a crowd of onlookers as the tanks fired into the camp. The crowd shouted, “God is great, and God protect the army,” with each shell fired..“We wish the government would destroy the whole camp and the rest of the camps,” said another in the crowd, Ahmad al-Marooq. “Nothing good comes out of the Palestinians..”But military experts said a direct assault on the camps would be a grave mistake. “We cannot afford to have that here,” said Elias Hanna, a retired army general, who warned against a direct assault. “This is not a question of the army’s capabilities or its professionalism. You simply can’t send the army into the camps to arrest 200 people without paying a heavy price in civilian casualties..”Residents of the camp said that water and electricity had been cut off, and that an effort to convince the militants to hold their fire to allow the Red Cross to evacuate injured civilians collapsed because the Lebanese Army said it could not guarantee the medics’ security..Lebanon’s 400,000 Palestinians remain among the most downtrodden refugees in the Arab world, enjoying few rights and facing strict restrictions on the kind of work they can do. Most are limited to menial, low-paying jobs and face significant prejudices..Some refugee camps, in turn, have become fertile ground for growing militancy, especially focused against Israel..In recent years the ranks of religious militants bent on a broader jihad have swelled, as some have traveled to Iraq to join the insurgency there and, more recently, have returned to establish movements of their own within the camps..“The army will not be able to defeat them,” said Ahmad Skaff, 20, who lives near the camp, and who said he watched the militants gather outside the camp early Sunday, carrying rocket propelled grenades and other heavy weaponry, ready for a fight. “They are fearless; they will slaughter the army..”The bomb in Beirut exploded just before midnight on Sunday in a parking lot behind a towering shopping mall called ABC and next to a multilevel garage. There was no clear target, though it may have been aimed at moviegoers who sometimes leave the mall around midnight. But the lot was relatively empty at the time of the bombing..The explosion shattered the windows of apartment buildings and stores for blocks around. Fire trucks and police vehicles inched their way through the crowded, narrow streets toward the site. Lebanese soldiers in berets and green camouflage fatigues pushed back hundreds of people trying to shove their way into the area, many snapping photos with their cell phones..“We thought the building had collapsed because it was so strong,” said Hamid Saliba, 39, as he and his wife gingerly stepped through the debris of her mother’s apartment, just a few hundred feet from the blast site. A painting of Jesus Christ hung askew on a wall.