Mashaal: Ensure Palestinians' safety

Lebanese army besieges Nahr el-Bared; Palestinians report 9 dead, 40 wounded.

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(photo credit: )
Hamas leader-in-exile Khaled Mashaal demanded Monday that the Lebanese government ensure the safety of the Palestinians living in a refugee camp that was being bombarded with artillery and tank fire. Mashaal, who lives in Syria, called Lebanon's Prime Minister Fuad Saniora and asked him to take the "necessary procedures not to touch Palestinians in Nahr el-Bared camp and expressed his keenness on the safety of Lebanese and Palestinian lives in Lebanon," according to a statement issued by Hamas that was faxed to the AP. Saniora responded positively and promised to take the necessary to save Palestinians, the statement added. Lebanese army troops pounded the Nahr el-Bared camp in northern Lebanon for a second day Monday as they battled a militant groups suspected of ties to al-Qaida. Palestinian officials in the camp reported at least nine civilians were killed in Monday's fighting, along with 40 wounded. The figures could not be confirmed because emergency workers or security officials have not been able to get in. Nearly 50 combatants were killed in the first day of fighting on Sunday at the Nahr el-Bared camp, where the Fatah Islam militant group was holed up. But the number of civilian casualties from two days of bombardment of the crowded camp on the outskirts of the northern port city of Tripoli was not known. Palestinian officials in the camp reported nine killed Monday. The figures could not be confirmed because emergency workers or security officials have not been able to get in. Fighting paused briefly in the afternoon to allow the evacuation of 18 wounded civilians, according to Saleh Badran, an official with the Palestinian Red Crescent Society. But the fierce fighting quickly resumed. Ambulances raced through the streets of nearby Tripoli, where many shops were closed and many Lebanese living near the camp stayed inside. "There are many wounded. We're under siege. There is a shortage of bread, medicine and electricity. There are children under the rubble," Sana Abu Faraj, a refugee, told Al-Jazeera television by cell phone from inside the camp. The battle was an unprecedented showdown between the Lebanese army and militant groups that have arisen in Lebanon's Palestinian refugee camps, which are home to tens of thousands of people living amid poverty and crime and which Lebanese troops are not allowed to enter. The troops were fighting a group called Fatah Islam, whose leader has said he is inspired by al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and was training militants to carry out attacks in other countries. The group's leader is linked to the former head of al-Qaida in Iraq and is believed to have sent fighters to join Iraq's insurgency. Lebanese officials have also accused Syria of using Fatah Islam to stir up trouble in Lebanon, a charge Damascus has denied. The US State Department defended the Lebanese army, saying it was working in a "legitimate manner" against "provocations by violent extremists" operating in the camp. Hundreds of Lebanese army troops, backed by tanks and armored carriers, surrounded the refugee camp, where Fatah Islam fighters were holed up. Early Monday, artillery bombardment and cannon fire from M-48 battle tanks sent up orange flames followed by white plumes of smoke from the camp, and the militants fired back with mortars. Troops were targeting buildings known to house militants and striking any target that directed fire at them, an army officer at the front line said. A spokesman for Fatah Islam, Abu Salim, warned that if the army siege did not stop, the militants would step up attacks by rockets and artillery "and would take the battle outside Tripoli." "It is a life-or-death battle. Their aim is to wipe out Fatah Islam. We will respond and we know how to respond," he told the Associated Press, without elaborating. Earlier in the day, another refugee camp, Ein el-Hilweh in southern Lebanon, was tense after Lebanese troops surrounded it and armed militants went on alert. At least 27 soldiers and 20 militants were killed Sunday, Lebanese security officials said. But they did not know how many civilians had been killed in the camp because it is off-limits to their authority. Lebanon says it cannot enter the camps under understandings with the Palestinians that give the PLO authority there But Lebanon also likely fears an assault into the camp would spark wider unrest and a backlash of sympathy for the Palestinian refugees across the Arab world - particularly at a time when Israel is striking Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. The clashes were triggered when police raided suspected Fatah Islam hideouts in several buildings in Tripoli, searching for men wanted in a recent bank robbery. A gunbattle erupted, and troops were called in to help the police. Militants then burst out of the nearby refugee camp, seizing Lebanese army positions and ambushing troops. Lebanese troops later laid siege to the refugee camp, unleashing fire from tanks, artillery and heavy machine guns. The fighting with Palestinians adds a dangerous new layer of turmoil in Lebanon, already tense from a months-long political crisis between the country's domestic pro- and anti-Syrian factions. Fatah Islam arose after its leader, a Palestinian named Shaker al-Absi, was expelled from Syria - where he had been held in custody - and set himself up in Nahr el-Bared last fall. Al-Absi, said in a March interview with The New York Times that he was a training fighter inside the camp for attacks on other countries and that he aimed to spread al-Qaida's ideology. Lebanese security officials said Fatah Islam has up to 100 members who come from Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia and Syria, as well as local sympathizers who belong to the conservative Salafi branch of Islam. In a televised press conference in March, al-Absi denied he was sending fighters to Iraq, saying, "Fighting in our homeland (Palestine) is more important." "We have no connection with any regime or organization on this earth. Our connection is with 'There is no God but God' (the slogan of Islam). We have come to raise it over the skies of Jerusalem," he told reporters. But al-Absi has been linked in the past with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq killed last summer by US forces in Iraq. Al-Absi was sentenced to death in absentia in Jordan, along with al-Zarqawi, for the 2002 assassination of an American diplomat in Amman. One militant killed in the fighting, Saddam El-Hajdib - the fourth-highest ranking official in Fatah Islam - was a suspect in a failed German train bombing last summer, said a Lebanese security official. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media. El-Hajdib, the fighter was on trial in Lebanon in absentia in connection with the plot and his brother is in custody in Germany. Also among the dead militants in the Nahr el-Bared fighting were men from Bangladesh, Yemen and other Arab countries, the Lebanese Broadcasting Corp. TV station reported Sunday. Some of those killed were wearing explosive belts, security officials said. But Lebanon's national police commander, Maj. Gen. Ashraf Rifi, denied Fatah Islam was linked to al-Qaida, saying Damascus was covertly using the group to wreak havoc in the country. "Perhaps there are some deluded people among them but they are not al-Qaida. This is imitation al-Qaida, a 'Made in Syria' one," he told the AP. Lebanon has struggled to defeat armed groups that control pockets of Lebanon - especially inside the country's 12 Palestinian refugee camps housing some 350,000 people. Some camps have become havens for Islamic militants accused of carrying out attacks in the country and of sending recruits to fight US-led coalition forces in Iraq. With the fighting raging around them, refugees in Nahr el-Bared were hiding in their houses, said Ahmed Methqal, a Muslim cleric in the camp. Mohammed Hanafi, identified by Al-Jazeera as a human rights activist in the camp, put the number of civilians killed Sunday at 14, with 150 wounded. In Monday's fighting, a driver for The Associated Press, working with AP journalists at the scene, was injured when he was hit in the thigh by a bullet or shrapnel. He was being treated at a local hospital and was expected to recover. Fatah officials in the West Bank sought to distance themselves from Fatah Islam and urged Palestinian refugees in the camp to isolate the militant group.