Militants hit southern Lebanon

Attack near refugee camp raises fears of second assault front

June 04, 2007|By Raed Rafei and Louise Roug | Raed Rafei and Louise Roug,LOS ANGELES TIMES

AIN AL-HILWEH, Lebanon -- Islamic militants attacked an army checkpoint yesterday in the south near the country's largest Palestinian refugee camp, raising fears that a second front has opened between the Lebanese army and al-Qaida-inspired militants.

Thousands of soldiers are deployed in the northern part of the country, fiercely battling a few hundred fighters who are holed up in a Palestinian refugee camp there.

Fighters from the Jund al-Sham group attacked the checkpoint at the entrance to the Ain al-Hilweh camp, using rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns. A soldier and a civilian were injured as the army fought back in an almost three-hour gunfight.

Although no one was killed at the camp near the southern city of Sidon, military officials were alarmed by the specter of spreading fighting.

"It's an echo of what's going on in Nahr el-Bared," said an army official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "I'm afraid this incident could develop into a second front. All the elements of trouble are there."

During the weekend, at least 10 soldiers were killed at the Nahr el-Bared camp after new fighting flared up Friday. Since clashes at the camp began May 20, at least 41 soldiers have been killed and 160 have been injured. At least 27 militants are confirmed dead but many more may have been killed, said military officials.

Aid organizations have had limited access to the camp so there are no precise figures of civilian casualties in what has become the deadliest internal fighting in Lebanon since the 15-year civil war that ended in 1990.

"Since the clashes in Nahr el-Bared, we have felt we're going to get it," said Ivine Ahmed, a 22-year-old resident in Ain al-Hilweh. "Everyone is prepared for the worst."

Jund al-Sham, one of several militant Palestinian factions inside the Ain al-Hilweh camp, is a relatively small group which previously has clashed with the military. It numbers fewer than 100 fighters inside the refugee camp with about 100,000 residents, according to Palestinian and Lebanese officials.

Some members of the group have fought against American forces in Iraq, and a contingent of fighters joined Fatah al-Islam in its fight against the Lebanese army in northern Lebanon at the smaller Nahr el-Bared camp.

"If we fail, this will be a catastrophe," said the army official. "It will be another Iraq."

Lebanon is home to about 400,000 Palestinians who live in a dozen camps across the country. The army is bound by a 1969 agreement with Palestinian officials not to enter the refugee camps. However, salvos of machine-gun fire dominated the fighting at Nahr el-Bared yesterday, suggesting close combat.

Red Cross officials say as many as 7,000 civilians from an original population of about 40,000 are still in the camp, suffering from food, water and medicine shortages.

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

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