Scores flee refugee camp in Lebanon

Updated: 2007-07-12 00:14

At least 150 Palestinians fled a northern refugee camp Wednesday in anticipation of an assault by the Lebanese army battling Islamic militants holed up inside.

Two Lebanese army trucks block the road of the southern entrance of the Palestinian refugee camp, as in the background Palestinian carrying their belongings flee from the camp of Nahr el-Bared, in the northern city of Tripoli, Lebanon, Wednesday July 11, 2007. At least 150 Palestinians fled their north Lebanon refugee camp on Wednesday in anticipation of an assault by the Lebanese army battling Islamic militants holed up inside.[AP]

Most of the refugees left with the help of the Palestinian Red Crescent, said Samar Kadi, an International Committee of the Red Cross communications officer.

Those fleeing arrived on foot at the southern entrance of the Nahr el-Bared camp. They were searched by soldiers at a Lebanese army checkpoint and then climbed into vehicles sent by the Palestinian Red Crescent. The Lebanese army held many of them for interrogation, Kadi said.

Witnesses said the army was bringing in heavy reinforcements to the camp area near the northern port of Tripoli, suggesting a fresh assault was imminent.

A sniper from inside the camp killed a Lebanese soldier late Tuesday after the Fatah Islam fighters rejected repeated calls to surrender.

The mainstream Palestinian Fatah movement was reported to have called on its guerrillas inside the camp to leave as well.

The latest buildup came as the country prepared to mark the first anniversary of Israel's invasion of southern Lebanon on Thursday.

Fighting between Fatah Islam and the Lebanese army erupted May 20. Lebanon's defense minister announced June 21 that the al-Qaida-inspired militants have been defeated and declared major combat over after soldiers seized militant positions on the edges of the camp.

However, Fatah Islam fighters fled deeper into the camp and continue to engage the army in firefights daily. They have repeatedly ignored calls from the army to surrender, and all mediation efforts to end the military standoff have failed.

The battle to drive the Islamic militants out has led to significant damage to parts of the camp, once home to some 30,000 Palestinian refugees. Only a few thousand remain inside, after most residents fled to the nearby Beddawi refugee camp.

A senior military official said the Lebanese soldier was killed late Tuesday near the Nahr el-Bared camp by Fatah Islam snipers inside the settlement.

His death brought to 86 the number of Lebanese soldiers who have been killed since the fighting erupted, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to give official statements.

Fatah Islam group is believed to be made up of mostly foreign Sunni Muslim fighters, and Lebanon's Western-backed government has accused the group of trying, with Syria's backing, to launch a rebellion in the north of the country and destabilize Lebanon. Syria denies the allegations and has described Fatah Islam as a dangerous terrorist organization.

The fighting at the Palestinian refugee camp has become the worst internal violence since Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war, and is believed to have killed more than 160 people, including 86 soldiers, at least 60 militants and more than 20 civilians.

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