|Furious Street Battles Remind Lebanon of Its Past |
By HASSAN M. FATTAH
Published: May 23, 2007
NAHR AL BARED REFUGEE CAMP, Lebanon, May 22 — The stark reality of the three-day battle in this seaside refugee camp became apparent Tuesday on a drive through the area during a brief but dangerous lull in the fighting.
Bodies lay in the rubble-strewn streets, some unrecovered through three days of fighting.
At the approach of a car, terrified Palestinians emerged from hiding, then scrambled for safety when snipers opened fire on them from various directions. A spontaneous demonstration against the fighting quickly ended when the demonstrators came under fire, leaving two dead and several others wounded.
Soon the crackle of heavy machine-gun fire in the distance offered an ominous warning of impending attack, and minutes later mortar shells landed on a United Nations convoy delivering badly needed food and medical supplies.
No one, it seemed, was safe from the violence.
Three days after a police raid touched off a violent confrontation between the Lebanese Army and a militant Palestinian group, Fatah al Islam, the first clear look inside the camp on Tuesday presented stark reminders of Lebanon’s bloody past.
And ominous warnings from Palestinian groups in other camps as well as a suicide bombing in an apartment in Tripoli raised fears that the conflict could spread to other parts of the country and destabilize the already shaky government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.
Up to 40,000 Palestinians have been trapped inside Nahr al Bared with no water or electricity and dwindling supplies of food as the shelling has continued since Sunday, preventing aid groups from entering the camp.
Even when aid did arrive on Tuesday afternoon, the convoy came under mortar fire. No one was injured in the attack, a United Nations official said, but three damaged trucks were abandoned as aid workers quickly evacuated the area.
As the aid workers drove in, a stream of private cars took advantage of the calm as people scrambled out the camp, many carrying wounded women and children and waving white flags out their car windows. Snipers perched on a hill above the last stretch of road leading from the camp — some belonging to Fatah al Islam, others to the army — opened fire on the cars as they sped past, fleeing refugees said.
In another lull on Tuesday night, thousands of Palestinians piled into cars and raced for the exit gates and presumed safety. Most drove to stay with relatives in the nearby Badawi camp about 10 miles away.
“It was worse than hell,” said Yasmin Abdel Ain, who left the camp on Tuesday night. “The army and Fatah al Islam would fire on each other, but the bombs and bullets landed on us. We were waiting for death.”
The fighting, the most serious of its kind in Lebanon since the end of the civil war in 1990, began Sunday when security officials raided a building in pursuit of bank robbers tied to Fatah al Islam. The raid quickly exploded into all-out warfare when men belonging to the group began attacking army outposts at the edges of the refugee camp.
Early Tuesday, security men surrounded the same building in the center of Tripoli, where a suspected militant was believed to be hiding. But as the security forces closed in on him, he blew himself up, a senior security official said.
“This was terrorism, and no other group could have done what the man did,” said a security official, who was not authorized to speak publicly. He said the Internal Security Forces had sealed the building after Sunday’s fighting, but said the militant had apparently hidden in an apartment on another floor.
In yet another reminder of Lebanon’s bloody past, a group of young men in civilian clothing, carrying brand new M-16 rifles and ready to fight, arrived at one entrance to the camp on Tuesday afternoon and demanded that the army allow them to enter. After a brief scuffle, the army appeared to allow them to guard a nearby area, but strictly forbade them to enter. The Bush administration once again pointed to Syria as a source of the unrest, possibly to deflect attention from the United Nations investigation into the assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, for which Syria has been blamed.
“We will not tolerate attempts by Syria, terrorist groups or any others to delay or derail Lebanon’s efforts to solidify its sovereignty or to seek justice in the Hariri case,” the White House spokesman, Tony Snow, said in a statement.
The European Union foreign affairs chief, Javier Solana, in Beirut on Tuesday countered the administration’s claims, saying he had seen no evidence of Syrian involvement.
The conflict has tugged at Lebanon’s fragile social fabric, inflaming already difficult relations between the Lebanese and the Palestinians. Many Lebanese see the Palestinians as a growing blight on their country, and blame them for harboring groups like Fatah al Islam. Some residents of Tripoli openly called for the army to destroy the camp altogether, insisting that the Palestinians be forced to move away.
Palestinians, who already feel discriminated against, say the shelling and machine-gun fire appears to have targeted them, not just the militants. On Tuesday demonstrators at other refugee camps — including Lebanon’s largest, Ain el Hilwe, and the Rashidiye camp — burned tires and chanted against the fighting, insisting, “We will not let our Palestinian brothers be slaughtered,” The Associated Press reported.
Sultan Abu Aynayn, the leader of the Palestinian Fatah movement in Lebanon, speaking to reporters after concluding a meeting with Prime Minister Siniora, warned, “If the random shelling does not stop, there will be uprisings in all the camps in Lebanon.”
Ali Arabi, who escaped from the camp with his family on Monday night, said the fighting was accomplishing nothing except killing the innocent. “There can only be a political solution to this conflict,” he said. “Each shell that lands on the camp takes with it two or three people. If they intend to do this militarily, they will have to destroy the whole camp.”
Lebanon Asks U.S. for $280 Million
WASHINGTON, May 22 (AP) — Lebanon has asked the United States for $280 million in military assistance to help put down an uprising by Al Qaeda-inspired militants operating from a Palestinian refugee camp, the State Department said Tuesday.
About $220 million would go to the Lebanese Armed Forces and another $60 million to security forces, said Sean McCormack, a State Department spokesman. He added that the United States was weighing the request.