Lebanese army hunts for fugitives after crushing Fatah Islam

Mass breakout of fighting leaves 39 insurgents dead; Saniora promises to rebuild camp.

jp.services1 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Lebanese soldiers fanned out along the Mediterranean coastline in northern Lebanon on Monday, hunting for fugitives a day after the army crushed the remnants of a militant group and ended a three-month siege at a Palestinian refugee camp. The army searched buildings and bushes for Fatah Islam fighters that may have escaped Sunday's battle at the Nahr el-Bared camp. Patrol boats were out looking for bodies in the sea. The camp remained off limits to its Palestinian civilian population which had fled in the early days of the fighting that erupted May 20. Inside the camp, military sappers were combing devastated neighborhoods, looking for booby traps, unexploded shells and mines. Investigators, meanwhile, were questioning captured militants. The search followed Sunday's final battle between the army and al-Qaida-inspired Fatah Islam militants that left 39 of them and three soldiers dead, as the militants attempted a dawn breakout from Nahr el-Bared. Some of the militants tried to sneak out through a tunnel, while another group tried to escape through a different path. Outside fighters arrived to help them, said security officials. Army quickly deployed reinforcements to the camp, just outside the port city of Tripoli, blocked surrounding roads and set fires to nearby fields to deny fleeing militants a hiding place. Helicopters provided aerial reconnaissance for the military inside the camp, and checkpoints were erected as far as Beirut and southern Lebanon. Villagers of nearby settlements, armed with guns and sticks, also came out to help the army and protect their houses, the state TV reported. By the end of the day, the camp was in Lebanese army control and authorities declared victory over Fatah Islam. Officials said the army killed 39 militants and captured 20. It was not immediately known how many militants managed to escape. The army said three soldiers were killed in Sunday's fighting and two on Saturday, raising to 158 the number of troops who have died in the conflict - Lebanon's worst internal fighting since the 1975-90 civil war. More than 20 civilians and more than 60 militants have also been killed. Prime Minister Fuad Saniora declared victory Sunday "over the terrorists in Nahr el-Bared," saying in a televised speech to the country this was "an hour of pride, victory and joy." At the news of the militants' collapse, celebratory gunfire erupted in villages. Townspeople and troops celebrated in the streets, waving Lebanese flags and flashing victory signs into the night. Other regions celebrated with fireworks, drumming and dancing. On Monday, authorities worked on identifying the bodies - particularly one purported to being that of Fatah Islam's leader, Shaker al-Absi. The militant's wife was sent for to identify him, while a DNA test was being conducted to compare it with family members. Al-Absi, a Palestinian linked to the late leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, has not been seen or heard from since early in the fighting. Fatah Islam had set up its headquarters at the Nahr el-Bared last fall. Some officials say the group is a branch of al-Qaida that wants to make Lebanon and the Palestinian refugee camps there a safe haven. The U.S. State Department has called the group an offshoot of a Syrian-backed militia, Fatah al-Intifada. Nahr el-Bared's siege began in late May, when police raided militants' hideouts in Tripoli. Fighters ambushed army troops called in to help, after which the army laid siege to the camp with tanks and artillery. Families of the militants - women and children - were evacuated in late August, the last civilians to leave the camp. Before Sunday, Lebanese officials had said up to 70 militants remained in the bombed-out camp - down from an estimated 360 fighters when the fighting erupted.