Mediators push for Lebanon truce

Government demands justice for soldier-killers; Hizbullah warns against attack.

Lebanon Army 298 88 (photo credit: AP)
Lebanon Army 298 88
(photo credit: AP)
Palestinian mediators pressed for a negotiated solution to a week-long siege of a Palestinian refugee camp Sunday, with the government demanding the surrender of Islamic militants inside but reluctant to rush into an all-out assault. The Lebanese government was in a bind over its campaign to uproot Fatah Islam militants barricaded inside the Nahr el-Bared refugee camp. An attack to crush the fighters could be bloody - for the troops and for the thousands of Palestinian civilians still inside. It would also risk deepening Lebanon's domestic divisions. Hizbullah, the most powerful opposition movement, has warned the military against attacking, and if the assault goes badly it could boost Hizbullah's months-long campaign to oust Prime Minister Fuad Saniora. But the military has put its credibility on the line with demands that Fatah Islam's fighters be handed over for prosecution for attacking Lebanese troops last week. A fragile truce has held at the camp in northern Lebanon for five days, with hundreds of Lebanese troops surrounding Nahr el-Bared and building up their forces - with US military help - to prepare for an attack. Inside, Fatah Islam fighters were vowing to fight rather than surrender. The truce followed three days of heavy fighting at the camp in which 20 civilians, 30 Lebanese soldiers and up to 60 militants were killed. "We wish to die for the sake of God ... Sunni people are the spearhead against the Zionist Americans," the group's leader, Shaker Youssef al-Absi said in a video shown on Al-Jazeera television on Saturday. Palestinian factions have presented the government with a four-point plan aimed at a peaceful resolution of the standoff, Abu Imad Rifai, a representative of Islamic Jihad, told the Associated Press on Sunday. The plan calls for a cease-fire, the creation of a Palestinian security force to maintain law and order in the camp, the barring of other armed groups in the camp and the creation of "a mechanism for the departure of the Fatah Islam group from the camp," Rifai said. There was no immediate reaction from the government to the plan, which falls short of its demands for the handover of the militants. Rifai said the government found "some positive elements" in the plan but that details on how to deal with the departure of the fighters had to be worked out. "A final plan will be presented to the government in the next few days," he said. It is not known where the militants would go. Syria is one option - al-Absi spent years in the country, some of them in prison, before arriving in Nahr el-Bared last year. That has raised accusations among Lebanese security forces that Damascus is using the group to stir-up trouble in Lebanon, and they may be reluctant to allow Fatah Islam to return there. Damascus denies the accusations and says al-Absi and other Fatah Islam leaders are wanted in Syria for suspected terrorist activities. Al-Absi is also wanted in Jordan, where he has been sentenced to death in absentia for involvement in the 2002 killing of an American diplomat in Amman. But Rifai insisted that "a political solution is the only option." "The repercussions of a military solution are much more serious than a political solution," he said, in a clear warning that a military assault on Nahr el-Bared would trigger violence in Lebanon's other 11 Palestinian refugee camps. The government appeared more willing to forgo an assault after Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah on Friday warned the government against storming the camp. On Sunday, Druse leader Walid Jumblatt, Nasrallah's arch political foe and a strong supporter of the government, said, "No one is proposing a military solution, but we want the killers (of Lebanese troops) to be handed over to Lebanese justice." Al-Absi, the Fatah Islam leader, has said he is inspired by Osama bin Laden's call for "jihad", or holy war, and his group has collected fighters from other Arab countries - unlike other Palestinian terror organizations, which are made up solely of Palestinians. Major Palestinian factions - including the Islamic Jihad and Hamas - have distanced themselves from the group. A videotape obtained by AP Television News in Tripoli showed alleged Fatah Islam militants training at an unidentified location in the Nahr al-Bared camp. The footage, which could not be independently verified and whose date was not known, showed several militants carrying automatic rifles and running through an obstacle course. During the halt in fighting, about 25,000 of the camp's 31,000 refugees fled Nahr el-Bared, most of them crowding into the nearby Beddawi camp, said Hoda al-Turk, a spokeswoman for UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees, known as UNRWA, as she toured Beddawi on Sunday.