Thousands flee fighting in Lebanon

Truce between army and Islamist militants takes hold amid reports of rising civilian toll

May 23, 2007|By Borzou Daragahi and Raed Rafei | Borzou Daragahi and Raed Rafei,LOS ANGELES TIMES

NAHR EL-BARED, Lebanon -- Thousands of Palestinian refugees, caught for days in the crossfire between warring Lebanese government troops and Islamist militants with alleged al-Qaida ties, began fleeing their embattled camp last night as a lull in the fighting took hold.

Intense street battles broke out around this refugee camp in northern Lebanon this week after an army raid against militants from a group called Fatah al-Islam wanted in a bank robbery.

The fighting gave way to a shaky cease-fire yesterday afternoon as reports of a mounting civilian toll were aired on Arab-language television. At least 60 soldiers, militants and civilians have died in the deadliest outbreak of internal violence since the Lebanese civil war ended two decades ago. Many more civilians, including children in the Nahr el-Bared refugee camp, suffered shrapnel and gunshot wounds.

Hundreds of refugees, some in pajamas and on foot and others in cars and buses, gathered last night at the nearby Badawi camp, where they were placed in school buildings.

"We saw people leaving, so we decided to flee on foot," said Rasmiya Dawoud, 60, sitting in a classroom with her daughter and other relatives. "We were scared. But at that point we had nothing to lose. For the last days we were living in terror and fear. Our children were hungry, thirsty. Our homes were destroyed."

The battle between the Sunni-led government and Sunni radicals does not fit neatly into the larger conflicts - such as those between Iraq's Sunnis and Shiites and between Iran and the United States - shaping regional alliances.

But Lebanon's political climate has become so volatile that many fear the fighting could spiral out of control. Despite the country's distinct religious composition and political scene, the outcomes of its internecine battles tend to reverberate through the region.

Militants belonging to Fatah al-Islam holed up in Nahr el-Bared months ago, stockpiling weapons. At 2:30 p.m. yesterday, the group called a unilateral cease-fire, which the government respected.

Relief workers began to attend to the 40,000 Palestinians caught in the crossfire inside the camp, which lacks electricity and supplies. The Associated Press reported that a relief convoy was hit by gunfire as it tried to deliver supplies to the camp.

Throughout the morning and early afternoon, government troops with tanks and artillery bombarded the militants' positions in and around the seaside refugee camp next to the market town of Nahr el-Bared. Bullet holes scarred the whitewashed buildings of the camp.

Armored personnel carriers rumbled past. Truckloads of Lebanese troops poured into the area, setting up blockades and checkpoints to search vehicles. Relief workers ferried Lebanese families living near the fighting to safety. A plainclothes Lebanese intelligence official barked orders over a cell phone.

"Fatah al-Islam has gathered in the center of the camp," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "They've lost the ability to move beyond the camp."

The Lebanese army, which spearheaded the attack, declared the operation a success.

But televised reports about wounded Palestinian refugees and allegations that the Lebanese army prevented relief vehicles from entering the camp clearly stung the U.S.-backed government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. The Lebanese army dispatched an official to the rooftop where many television networks had established camera positions, asking them not to film Lebanese forces bombing the camp.

Televised images of an Arab government shelling a Palestinian refugee camp have rattled the Arab world.

"The military situation is difficult because the army cannot use its absolute power for fear of killing too many civilians, especially because the camp is densely populated," said Elias Hanna, a retired Lebanese general. "Politicians are not sure they can accept the collateral damage."

Camp residents told of bodies lying in the streets for days. Ali Boos, a doctor at the camp, described running from house to house to treat leg wounds without anesthesia or disinfectant and of sewing stitches with needle and thread.

"The number of wounded cannot be counted," he said after arriving at the Badawi camp. "We can smell the dead bodies."

Borzou Daragahi and Raed Rafei write for the Los Angeles Times.

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