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French Version

Fierce Fighting Rages for 3rd Day Between Security Forces and Fatah al-Islam

Heavy artillery and machine gun fire boomed around Nahr al-Bared on Tuesday as Prime Minister Fouad Saniora's government authorized the army to finish off Fatah al-Islam militants holed up inside the northern Palestinian refugee camp.

The fighting — which resumed for a third straight day after a brief nighttime lull — reflected the government's determination to pursue the Islamic militants who staged attacks on Lebanese troops on Sunday and Monday, killing 29 soldiers. Some 20 militants have also been killed, as well as an undetermined number of civilians.

The cabinet late Monday ordered the army to step up its campaign and "end the terrorist phenomenon that is alien to the values and nature of the Palestinian people," Information Minister Ghazi Aridi said.

Hours after the decision, fighting flared up again Tuesday morning around Nahr al-Bared with black smoke billowing from the area after artillery and machine gun exchanges.

A spokesman for Fatah Islam, Abu Salim Taha, said fighters of the group repulsed several attempts by Lebanese troops to advance on their positions inside the camp.

"The shelling is heavy, not only on our positions, but also on children and women. Destruction is all over," he said. Speaking to The Associated Press by telephone from the camp, he denied his group was behind bomb blasts in Beirut on Sunday and Monday night, as well as media reports the group's No. 2 was wounded.

Inside the city of Tripoli, Lebanese troops moved in Tuesday against a suspected Fatah al-Islam hideout, witnesses said. Shots rang out on Mitein Street at midmorning, as security forces, acting on a tip about armed men in an apartment, raided the building using tear gas.

At Nahr al-Bared, Lebanese artillery has pounded the suspected positions of Fatah al-Islam, seeking to destroy the group with al-Qaida ties or force them out of the camp on the outskirts of Tripoli, Lebanon's second-largest city.

The fighting has also raised fears that Lebanon's worst internal violence since the 1975-1990 civil war could spread in a country with an uneasy balancing act among various sects and factions.

Fighting paused briefly Monday afternoon to allow the evacuation of 18 wounded civilians, according to Saleh Badran, an official with the Palestinian Red Crescent Society.

Palestinian refugees have been hiding in their homes inside the camp and Palestinian officials there said nine civilians were killed Monday. Reports from the camp of food and medical supplies running out could not be confirmed because officials and reporters could not enter.

Mufti Salim Lababidi, a Sunni spiritual leader of Palestinians in Lebanon, denounced the shelling which he claimed has killed or wounded some 100 civilians.

"We have condemned the attacks on the army but what about the civilians being killed? Who is for those innocent people," he said on al-Jazeera television. "There are a thousand ways to uproot Fatah al-Islam ... there are ways other than this."

As he spoke, major Palestinian faction leaders met with Saniora for the second time in as many days to try to resolve the crisis.

PLO representative Abbas Zaki said after the meeting that Palestinian factions, in collaboration with Saniora's government, were in the process of "setting out mechanisms to contain" the fighting between the army and Fatah al-Islam.

The camp is home to more than 31,000 people living in two- or three-story white buildings on densely packed narrow streets. It is one of more than 12 impoverished camps housing more than 215,000 refugees, out of a total of 400,000 Palestinians here. Lebanese authorities do not enter the camps, according to a nearly 40-year-old agreement with the Palestinians.

Major Palestinian factions have distanced themselves from Fatah al-Islam, which arose here last year and touts itself as a Palestinian liberation movement. But many view it as a nascent branch of al-Qaida-style terrorism with ambitions of carrying out attacks around the region.

The military assault adds yet another layer of instability to Lebanon's potentially explosive politics. Saniora's government already faces a domestic political crisis, with the Hizbullah-led opposition demanding its removal.

Raising fears of spreading violence, an explosion went off in a shopping area in Beirut's stylish Verdun district Monday evening, wrecking parked cars and injuring 10 people — a day after a bomb blast near the ABC mall in Ashrafiyeh killed a woman and wounded 12 other people. The confluence of two bombings while the fighting was going on in Tripoli was highly unusual.

Saniora also risks a backlash among Palestinians in Lebanon's other refugee camps, where armed groups and Islamic extremists have been growing in influence.

The White House said it supports Saniora's efforts to deal with the fighting, and the State Department defended the Lebanese army, saying it was working in a "legitimate manner" against "provocations by violent extremists" operating in the camp.

The leader of Fatah al-Islam, Palestinian Shaker al-Absi, has been linked to the former head of al-Qaida in Iraq and is accused in the 2002 assassination of a U.S. diplomat in Jordan. He moved into Nahr al-Bared last fall after being expelled from Syria, where he was in custody.

Since then, he is believed to have recruited about 100 fighters, including militants from Saudi Arabia, Yemen and other Arab countries, and he has said he follows the ideology of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden. Among the militants killed in the fighting Sunday was a man suspected in a plot to bomb trains in Germany last year, according to Lebanese security officials.
Beirut security officials accuse Syria of backing Fatah al-Islam to disrupt Lebanon, charges that are denied by Damascus, which controlled Lebanon until 2005 when its troops were forced to withdraw from the country following the assassination of former Premier Rafik Hariri.

Beirut 22-05-2007

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