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French Version

Murr rules out truce with Fatah al-Islam militants

Murr rules out truce with Fatah al-Islam militants
Group's ties to damascus not yet proven - minister

The Lebanese Army resumed its shelling of Fatah al-Islam militants in the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp on Thursday, with the defense minister vowing to crush the group, in a marked departure from earlier expressions of willingness to seek a truce.

"The army will win the battle and will negotiate on the basis of the surrender of the remaining fighters," Defense Minister Elias Murr told Nahar Ash-Shabab, a weekly supplement of local An-Nahar daily, on Thursday.

Palestinian leaders had previously held meetings with the army and the militants in an attempt to broker a cease-fire.

The offensive against the militants was launched on May 20, after a violent showdown between the army and Fatah al-Islam fighters in Tripoli was followed by attacks on army posts in which 27 soldiers were killed.

Seventy-five soldiers and an unknown number of militants have been killed in the fighting.

Murr vowed on Thursday that the army would not rest until it had taken custody of those behind the ambush on army posts outside Nahr al-Bared.

The sound of shells and gunfire reverberated throughout the camp on Thursday, although fighting was confined to the Cooperative and Naji Ali vicinity, where surviving militants are hiding among rubble and firing at the army.

The soldiers are advancing slowly from the northern part of the camp, dismantling mines and booby traps that have already killed several of their men.

De-mining teams precede them as large bulldozers, protected by sandbags and metal plates, wait in the rear, ready to go into action.

Murr cautioned the country's politicians against concluding that the militants in Nahr al-Bared have links to Syria, saying it was too early to tell.

"Does the government so far have an official confession about the links of these [Fatah Islam militants] or some of them to Syria? So far, there is no answer, and we have to wait for the next days," Murr was quoted as saying.

Fatah al-Islam first came to the public's attention in March, when the government blamed members of the group for fatal twin bus bombings in Ain Alaq a month earlier. Several ministers asserted at the time that the militants received support from Syrian intelligence and aimed to destabilize Lebanon.

State Prosecutor Saeed Mirza filed charges on Thursday against 16 suspected Fatah al-Islam members, including group leader Shaker Youssef al-Abssi, who is still at large.

Among the defendants were 10 Syrians, two Lebanese, two Palestinians (including one woman) and one Saudi fighter. Nine of the suspects charged Thursday are in custody.

Murr said several militants had been arrested in Tripoli before the fighting erupted in Nahr al-Bared, including members of Fatah al-Islam, Al-Qaeda and a third group that reportedly participated in clashes with the Lebanese Army in the northern region of Dinniyeh in 1999.

The Dinniyeh militants were released under a general amnesty in 2005, but were re-arrested last month.

"There is a faction of them which belongs directly to Al-Qaeda," Murr said.

Fatah al-Islam has said it has no organizational ties to Al-Qaeda but shares the group's ideology and views Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden as a mentor.

However, Omar Bakri Mohammad, an Islamist preacher who has been in contact with Fatah al-Islam, said the group does have Syrian ties and is not an offshoot of Al-Qaeda.

"Abssi discovered Syria was trying to sell them out to America under the pretext of being Al-Qaeda in Lebanon," Bakri told The Daily Star.

Fatah al-Islam "are hard-core practicing Muslims, but they are not Al-Qaeda," said Bakri, who was barred from Britain two years ago for his radical views.

Despite the continuing army advance, Palestinian mediators remained optimistic on Thursday that a cease-fire might still be negotiated. "So far, we have not received the army command's official response to the cease-fire proposal," Sheik Mohammad Hajj, one of the leading mediators from the Palestine Clerics Association, told The Daily Star.

"The proposal does include surrender, but with conditions," said Hajj, who wouldn't elaborate on the details of the proposed surrender of the Fatah al-Islam members.

"Hopefully an agreement can be reached to end the bloodshed in the camp and bring about peace," he added.

Meanwhile, soldiers said that the remaining militants, whose number is unknown, had proven elusive.

"They're fighting like rats - it's very hard to see them," an army sergeant resting behind the lines told AFP on condition of anonymity on Thursday.

"Their firing points are camouflaged. They are in several holes, and run from one to the other," the sergeant said.

"They made holes in the walls of the houses so they can pass from one to the other without coming out into the open," he said, adding: "We think they also have tunnels."

Beirut 22-06-2007
The Daily Star

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