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French Version

Army quashes attack by Fatah al-Islam remnants

Troops continue combing nahr al-bared and environs for fugitive fighters

The Lebanese Army snuffed out a surprise attack by a handful of Fatah al-Islam militants in the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp in North Lebanon Monday, as troops continued hunting for escaped militants and mopping up the camp as the three-month battle came to a close.

Troops killed six gunmen in the camp Monday and captured three others who had fled on Sunday, when the army prevailed in a final showdown after most of the remaining Fatah al-Islam militants had staged three pre-dawn attempts to break out of the camp, an army source told The Daily Star on condition of anonymity.

Fatah al-Islam leader Shaker al-Abssi's body was identified by his wife and daughter in a Tripoli hospital, while the army recovered the body of Fatah al-Islam spokesman Abu Salim Taha along with 10 other corpses in the camp on Monday, the source said.

Six Fatah al-Islam gunmen ambushed a group of soldiers in the camp, tossing a hand grenade that wounded two troops, the source said, adding: "They surprised the soldiers."

Army tanks fired their main guns at the militants, all of whom were killed, the source added. Army sappers set off several booby traps left by Fatah al-Islam, producing explosions that could be heard outside the camp, the source said.

In the area surrounding the battered camp, soldiers continued to comb fields and buildings in search of militants who escaped on Sunday, as military helicopters provided aerial reconnaissance, the source said.

The source could not say how long the pursuit of fugitive militants or the clearing of the camp would take, although Defense Minister Elias Murr will specify at a news conference on Tuesday the army's short-term strategy, the source added.

The military has lost 162 soldiers since the violence erupted on May 20, including four who died during Sunday's climactic battle, the source said. The army killed 39 militants and captured 21 others during Sunday morning's clashes, the source added.

At about 3:30 a.m. on Sunday, a group of militants pounced on troops from a tunnel while another Fatah al-Islam unit attacked an army outpost as a white Mercedes arrived in support with three militants from outside the camp, according to media reports.

The army confronted the breakout bid, although the army source could not say how many militants escaped. After the battle, soldiers and local residents celebrated together briefly, as troops erected checkpoints on roads across the country and inhabitants of many surrounding villages fired guns in the air to mark the army's success.

Some media on Sunday said Abssi had managed to flee the camp, but his wife and daughter identified his body on Monday, the source said. The army, however, is waiting for DNA tests before officially declaring Abssi dead, the source added.

"We cannot take either his wife's or his daughter's [word as confirmation]," the source said.

Abssi, a Palestinian born in Jordan, reportedly arrived last fall in the Nahr al-Bared camp some 20 kilometers from the port city of Tripoli. The US State Department alleges that Fatah al-Islam broke off from the Syrian-backed radical Palestinian group Fatah al-Intifada, while Army Commander General Michel Suleiman labeled Fatah al-Islam a branch of Al-Qaeda.

With evidence gathered in the ruins of the Nahr al-Bared camp and information from the militants in custody, authorities can continue piecing together the Fatah al-Islam structure, said retired army General Elias Hanna. Security forces had 107 people in custody in connection with Fatah al-Islam before Sunday's events, and State Prosecutor Said Mirza charged the 107 detainees on August 20 for their involvement with Fatah al-Islam.

The conflict at Nahr al-Bared broke out when Fatah al-Islam gunmen blitzed an army checkpoint on the camp's outskirts on May 20 after security forces raided purported Fatah al-Islam safe houses in Tripoli while investigating a bank robbery on May 19 in the village of Amioun.

The army encircled the camp shortly after fighting began, while most of the camp's official count of 31,000 residents fled in the early days of the siege. Nine explosions rocked Beirut and its environs also beginning on May 20, though authorities have not linked the bombings to Fatah al-Islam. Four members of an alleged Fatah al-Islam sleeper cell were arrested on August 11 in Sidon, and three of them have been indicted for July 18 bombings in Kfar Falous and Roum in South Lebanon.

Fatah al-Islam militants in the Nahr al-Bared camp began firing Katyusha rockets on the region around the camp on July 13, damaging the Deir Ammar power plant on August 2 with two 105-millimeter Katyushas. Fuel tankers then refused to dock at the important power station, exacerbating the country's ongoing electricity shortages.

Army helicopters started dropping 250-kilogram bombs on Fatah al-Islam positions in the camp on August 9 and upped the tonnage to 400 kilograms on August 18. Abu Salim soon after asked Palestinian clerics serving as mediators for the evacuation of the militants' family members, and 25 women and 38 children were shepherded out of the camp on August 24.

With the end of combat in the camp, attention is turning to Nahr al-Bared's displaced residents. The UN Relief and Works Agency, which takes care of Palestinian refugees throughout the region, has pledged to rebuild the camp, a promise reiterated by Premier Fouad Siniora in his speech Sunday night declaring the army's victory over Fatah al-Islam.

Beirut 04-09-2007
The Daily Star

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