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French Version

15,000 Palestinians Flee Camp

About 15,000 Palestinian residents have fled the battered refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared when a lull following three days of ferocious fighting between Lebanese troops and Fatah al-Islam militants took hold, relief officials said Wednesday.

Those fleeing reported bodies littering the camp's streets and scenes of blasted buildings and destruction.

Taleb al-Salhani, a security officer of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency said Wednesday the bodies of 20 civilians -- men, women and children -- have been retrieved from the camp. But the total number of civilian casualties remained unknown.

But it was unclear how long the truce would hold, and there were fears that allowing civilians out could be a prelude for a major showdown.

Prime Minister Fouad Saniora's government vowed to finish off extremist militants from Fatah al-Islam, holed up inside Nahr al-Bared, and the army has said its troops were trying to target only militant positions.

Fatah al-Islam, which took up residence in the camp late last year, has vowed to fight a "life or death battle."

The cease-fire which went into effect Tuesday afternoon didn't begin to take hold until after sunset. With the guns largely falling silent, thousands of refugees dashed out of the camp after being pinned down since fighting broke out Sunday.

But earlier, a relief convoy came under fire as U.N. workers tried to deliver food and water to residents in Nahr al-Bared, home to more than 30,000 refugees. A U.N. official said some who approached the convoy seeking supplies were wounded or killed, but he did not have exact figures.

The refugees have largely moved to a nearby Palestinian refugee camp at Beddawi, where shelter, mattresses, food and water had been provided.

Twenty-nine Lebanese soldiers and at least 20 militants had been killed since the battles began Sunday in the heaviest internal fighting in Lebanon since the 1975-90 civil war.

The clashes raises the ominous prospect that parts of Lebanon could become havens for terrorists training to attack the West -- similar to lawless regions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Fatah al-Islam's leader, Palestinian Shaker al-Absi, has been linked to the former head of al-Qaida in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and is believed to have recruited about 100 fighters, including militants from Saudi Arabia, Yemen and other Arab countries.

The military's attack at the camp also has raised fears the fighting could destabilize Lebanon's uneasy balance among its many religious sects and factions.

EU foreign policy envoy Javier Solana, who met with rival political leaders, had appealed for a halt to the bloodshed.

"I am hoping very much for calm," he said after meeting Prime Minister Fouad Saniora.

Saniora's government already faces a domestic political crisis, with the Hizbullah-led opposition campaigning for its removal.
But so far, the opposition has supported the assault. Hizbullah issued a statement stressing the military's duty to safeguard the country.

Lebanese security officials accuse Syria of using Fatah al-Islam to destabilize Lebanon, a charge Damascus denies. Syria controlled Lebanon for decades until growing street demonstrations by Lebanese and international pressure forced it to withdraw its troops after the assassination of former Premier Rafik Hariri.(Naharnet-AP)

Beirut 23-05-2007

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