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French Version


22 troops, 19 Fatah al-Islam fighters dead

At least 41 people were killed Sunday in a fierce battle here and in the streets of nearby Tripoli between the Lebanese Army and members of an extreme Islamist group, in the deadliest clashes involving the army since the Civil War.

"We are being heavily shelled and many houses have already been destroyed," Ashraf Abu Khurj, a Palestinian resident of the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp, told The Daily Star over the telephone on Sunday afternoon.

Army tanks shelled the camp throughout the day after militants from Fatah al-Islam took control of army posts at the camp's entrance. The camp's electricity, phone lines and water were cut off. Army sources said the shelling was targeting Fatah al-Islam's headquarters inside the camp.

"There are bodies on the streets," Khurj and other camp residents said by phone.

As fighting continued late Sunday, an army source told The Daily Star that "so far, 22 soldiers have been confirmed dead," adding that a minimum of 17 militants had also been slain. AFP said at least two civilians had also perished in the crossfire.

At an emergency meeting Sunday night, Cabinet ministers decided to put off ordering the army to enter the camp pending a discussion on Monday.

The fighting broke out in the early morning after security forces raided a suspected Fatah al-Islam safehouse in Tripoli. Security sources said that troop were in pursuit of suspects in a Saturday bank robbery in Amioun in the Koura area in which several armed men made off with over $100,000.

Security forces raided several buildings in the Zahreyeh, Tel and Meateen areas of Tripoli, where the suspected robbers were thought to be in hiding.

"We traced the [bank robbers] to an apartment in Tripoli, which turned out to be an office for Fatah al-Islam," Interior Security Forces chief Ashraf Rifi said.

He said that after a decision was made to storm the apartment, armed men emerged to confront security forces in several neighborhoods of Tripoli.

"The security forces have for two weeks been monitoring armed groups that have been infiltrating some neighborhoods in Tripoli in an attempt to control the city," Rifi said.

Fatah al-Islam spokesman Abu Salim spoke with The Daily Star over the phone as the fighting raged Sunday.

"We will continue to defend ourselves and our honor until the end," he said, setting his group's death toll at five.

He said his group had taken control of four army positions "in reaction" to the early raid.

Medical and other security sources reported that between 11 and 19 militants and an unknown number of civilians had been killed. Medical sources inside the camp said there 17 civilians had been wounded there - seven critically - including women and children.

Witnesses said militants seized army positions at the entrance to the camp, capturing two armored personnel carriers. Gunmen also opened fire on roads leading to Tripoli and ambushed a military unit, killing two soldiers, security officials said.

Unconfirmed reports circulated that a number of army soldiers were kidnapped by the militants during the clash, with their whereabouts still unknown as The Daily Star went to press.

Columns of smoke and the sound of shelling and gunfire reverberated throughout Tripoli as the army assailed several buildings in the city with rocket-propelled grenades and tankfire and pounded away at the refugee camp, approximately 15 kilometers north of the city.

Fatah al-Islam has been linked by the Lebanese government to deadly bus bombings in Ain Alaq on February 13. It has denied any role in those attacks.

Hundreds of area residents took to the streets, chanting "God be with you, Lebanese Army" and cheering as tanks released a steady barrage of shells on the camp.

Some residents said they were willing to fight along with the army. "We have arms, and we will use them to fight alongside with the army whenever our leader tell us to do so," said Ali Dahban, 45, referring to Future Movement leader MP Saad Hariri.

Mouhamra is known as a bastion of heavy Future Movement support in the area.

A constant stream of troops and heavy equipment could be seen heading to North Lebanon on Sunday afternoon. Extra army checkpoints were set up along the main roads into Tripoli and Nahr al-Bared.

The International Committee of the Red Cross expressed concern for the welfare of the 40,000 inhabitants of the camp. ICRC spokeswoman Virginia de la Guardia called on all sides to allow Red Crescent ambulances access to the camp.

Fatah al-Islam accused the government of trying to pave the way for an offensive against the Palestinian camps in Lebanon, which house more than half of the country's approximately 280,000 refugees.

Fatah al-Islam, said to be an offshoot of the Syrian-based group Fatah al-Intifada, is headed by Shaker Abssi, who was born in Jericho in 1955 and is said to be linked to the former leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Zarqawi was killed in a US air strike in 2006.

Abssi, who was jailed for three years by Syria in 2003 and is also wanted by Jordan on suspicion of involvement in the 2002 killing of a US diplomat, is now based in Nahr al-Bared.

Deaths in the clashes appeared to be on pace to easily surpass those that took place in January 2000 when dozens of people were killed in fighting between the army and Sunni militants in the Northern region of Dinnieh. Fewer soldiers were killed in that incident.

Shortly after the fighting broke out, Syria announced that it had closed its border crossings opposite North Lebanon.

The Interior Ministry took the decision in order to "preserve the security of Lebanese and Syrian citizens," the official Syrian Arab News Agency said.

Fatah al-Islam is known to have Lebanese, Syrian and Palestinian members in its ranks.

Beirut 20-05-2007
Redaction
The Daily Star



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