Camp fight ends in Lebanon

Three-month battle between army and militants is over

September 03, 2007|By Raed Rafei | Raed Rafei,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Nahr el-Bared, Lebanon -- The Lebanese army routed a group of Islamist militants from a Palestinian refugee camp yesterday, ending more than three months of intense fighting that left thousands homeless and killed more than 300 people.

The final countdown to the battle in northern Lebanon started early in the day, when troops thwarted escape attempts by the militants, an army source said. At least 30 fighters were killed and 15 were captured at the Nahr el-Bared camp, the official said.

"The battle is over," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "The army has taken full control of the last few fighters' bases, and troops are now clearing the camp of remaining mines and explosives."

Prime Minister Fouad Siniora addressed the nation in a televised speech: "This is the biggest national triumph over terrorists. We insist that the state extend its sovereignty all over the Lebanese territory."

The conflict with the al-Qaida-inspired Fatah al Islam was the worst internal violence since Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war and led to more than 300 deaths.

It was not clear yesterday whether the militants would resurface. A small number of fighters, possibly including the group's leader, Shaker Abbsi, were believed to have fled through the mountains and valleys around the camp, the source said.

The fighting, which started May 20 and heightened tensions in a nation besieged by sectarian conflict and political unrest, displaced about 31,000 refugees.

The military victory might factor into upcoming presidential elections by boosting the chances of armed forces chief Michel Suleiman of becoming a compromise choice. Siniora's Western-backed government and the pro-Syrian and pro-Iranian opposition have been unable to agree on a presidential candidate, to be voted on by parliament as early as Sept. 25.

Soldiers stationed near the camp made victory signs and waved Lebanese flags yesterday as locals held them on their shoulders and chanted slogans in support of the army.

Throughout the day, army troops assisted by military helicopters searched nearby orchards and towns for militants, and naval boats patrolled the sea.

The Fatah al Islam fighters "pushed for their end. They were trying their last chance to escape," the military official said.

The wives and children of the militants were evacuated Aug. 24, the last civilians to leave the camp. Their exit signaled that the end of the military operation was near.

Five soldiers were killed in the fighting yesterday, bringing the army toll to 157.

The number of casualties among militants and civilians could not be confirmed and has not been released by authorities.

In a statement, the army urged residents of Nahr el-Bared camp not to go back to their homes. Months of aerial and artillery bombardment has destroyed most of the camp's buildings. Lebanese officials said a conference will be held Sept. 10 to collect donations for rebuilding the camp and its surroundings.

During the months of fighting, the U.S. government supplied the Lebanese army with ammunition and body armor.

Raed Rafei writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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