|Militants vow to avenge clashes in Lebanon|
By Harry de Quetteville in Nahr al-Bared
Last Updated: 12:59pm BST 24/05/2007
Tens of thousands of civilians are trapped tonight between a heavily-armed radical Islamic group and the Lebanese army as the two sides prepared for a bloody confrontation.
Nearly two thirds of the 40,000 refugees in the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp, including many too sick or elderly to leave, were left to their fate as the Lebanese army began to tighten its cordon around the sprawl of concrete buildings.
Inside, extremists from a group calling itself Fatah al-Islam vowed to fight to the death.
Some of the 11,000 refugees who escaped from Nahr al-Bared reported that the militants had threatened to shoot those who left, effectively using the camp’s civilians as a human shield to prevent an all-out assault.
But Elias Murr, the Lebanese defence minister, insisted that the militant group, which has been linked to al-Qa’eda, must surrender or face an army onslaught.
“We won’t negotiate with terrorists,” he said. This afternoon, a stream of ambulances which had been helping Nahr al-Bared’s under-resourced clinics and evacuating the most seriously injured withdrew.
“I have put more than 20 people in the back of the ambulance to evacuate them,” said Mazen Fakih, who described increasingly desperate scenes inside the camp.
“One of the women I brought out said that Fatah al-Islam had promised to shoot anyone who leaves.”
He said that “tens” of bodies from the first days of fighting between the militants and the army, which started at the weekend, still littered the streets and scrubland within the camp.
From there, a Fatah al-Islam spokesman, Abu Salim Taha, said that the group’s fighters — estimated at between 400 and 500 — were ready to face the Lebanese army.
“A small number of believers can fight a large number of infidels and Crusaders and win,” he said. “We have heavy weaponry and we will use them depending on the actions of the Lebanese army.”
Locals said that Fatah al-Islam’s equipment including Katyusha rockets and 160 millimetre calibre mortars, inherited from a separate militant group in the camp thought to be backed by Syria.
Last night the military standoff continued at the camp, about 60 miles north of capital Beirut. But doctors fear that if it descends into all-out fighting, as is widely expected, trapped civilians will bear the brunt of the violence.
The Lebanese army has already faced accusations of indiscriminately using tank shells and artillery in the first days of combat.
“Most injured civilians who have made it out have shrapnel wounds,” said Dr Abdel Aziz Bekai, at the nearby Safad hospital.
“Those wounds are from the Lebanese army bombs and artillery. “But many others have bullet wounds. They were hit by snipers. We don’t know which side the snipers were fighting for,” he said.
“Even the victims don’t know. They are just stuck in the middle.”
The army claimed a major victory when it identified one of the dead militants as Abu Medun, Fatah al-Islam’s second in command.
He is said to be a Syrian who had entered the camp three months ago.