Fleeing refugees voice outrage

Militants draw support over Lebanon's army

May 24, 2007|By Louise Roug and Raed Rafei | Louise Roug and Raed Rafei,LOS ANGELES TIMES

NAHR EL-BARED, Lebanon -- Palestinian refugees fleeing their homes yesterday under cover of a cease-fire expressed outrage at three days of shelling by the Lebanese army and sympathy for the militant group that was the target of the barrages.

"They didn't want to harm us," said Amira Suleiman, referring to the radical Islamic militant group, Fatah al-Islam. "They are peaceful, reading the Quran."

Suleiman and 10 other members of her family were among an estimated 15,000 residents who have streamed out of the Nahr el-Bared refugee camp in the past two days. She carried only a few plastic bags filled with clothes.

Her son referred to those who ordered the shelling as "dogs of the government," drawing the ire of nearby Lebanese, one of whom had to be restrained as he shouted: "What are you saying? That Fatah al-Islam isn't inside the camp? Who is fighting then?"

The battle against the small radical group, which is ideologically linked with al-Qaida, threatens to undermine Lebanon's fledgling army. Lebanese officials have asked for $280 million in military aid from the United States to fight the militants.

Observers fear that other radical factions might rise up in any of Lebanon's 11 other camps that are home to about 400,000 displaced and disenfranchised Palestinians.

"The weapons of radical Islamists are now part of the Lebanese equation," said Nicolas Nassif, a Beirut-based political analyst. The government has been forced to strike at the camps, he said. "There is no real choice. If we reach a point where Fatah al-Islam's existence in the camp is accepted, the situation will be very dangerous."

Some Lebanese government officials have charged Syria with providing weapons and money to the group but have offered no solid proof. Syrian officials have denied the accusation.

French anti-terrorism police have expressed concern since 2005 about al-Qaida-linked extremists in northern Lebanon's Palestinian refugee camps. They said their investigations showed that a French extremist underwent training at a camp in the Tripoli area, where Nahr el-Bared is located.

The network of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, then chief of al-Qaida in Iraq, supplied trainers to teach explosives techniques to fighters who then returned to Europe and elsewhere, French officials said.

At least 80 people, 30 of them Lebanese soldiers, have been killed so far, Defense Minister Elias Murr told the Al-Arabiya satellite channel yesterday. He warned that remaining militants faced a "full-scale military operation." The army is barred from entering the camp by a 1969 agreement.

A Red Cross official said more than 15,000 people, nearly half of Nahr el-Bared's residents, had arrived at the nearby Bedawi camp, already crowded with 20,000 Palestinians.

"They shelled mosques, not military bases," said Yasser Awad, 32, a gas station attendant who arrived at the Bedawi camp yesterday. "Even Israel didn't do this."

Louise Roug and Raed Rafei write for the Los Angeles Times.

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