Bethlehem - Ma’an News Agency - Fighting has entered its third day around the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr Al-Bared, in the north of Lebanon.
According to media reports, Lebanese troops began shelling the Nahr Al-Bared camp, near the northern city of Tripoli, at dawn on Tuesday. The Lebanese army is reported to have pledged to “finish off” the radical Fatah Al-Islam group. Militants from the radical group Fatah Al-Islam responded with gun and mortar fire.
The number of dead is not clear. Reports range from 50 to over 80 dead, including soldiers, militants and civilians. According to Al-Jazeera, at least 20 fighters, 32 soldiers and 27 civilians have been killed since fighting between the army and Fatah Al-Islam fighters erupted early on Sunday.
The clashes broke out on Sunday when Lebanese troops attempted to arrest suspects in a bank robbery in Tripoli. The arrest raid escalated when Fatah Al-Islam fighters then attacked Lebanese army posts at the entrance to Nahr Al-Bared camp.
On Monday evening, reports said that there were 15 dead and 80 injured inside Nahr Al-Bared camp due to the Lebanese shelling. Humanitarian agencies have reported over 25 dead in the camp. Dark smoke has been seen rising from the densely-inhabited camp.
Fifty-five Lebanese soldiers have also been wounded, according to Al-Jazeera.
This makes it Lebanon’s bloodiest internal violence since the 1975-1990 civil war.
Deteriorating humanitarian conditions
Fears of deteriorating humanitarian conditions in the camp, which houses 31,000 Palestinian refugees according to statistics of the UN agency responsible for Palestine refugees in the Near East, UNRWA, are rising. Residents and doctors in the refugee camp appealed for a ceasefire on Monday in order to be able to evacuate the injured and bury the dead.
However, according to the BBC, a planned two-hour ceasefire on Monday ended after just a few minutes, with clashes resuming before United Nations and Red Cross vehicles could enter the camp.
Saeed Taweyee, an emergency relief coordinator with the Palestinian Red Crescent (PRC), told the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs’ news agency IRIN, that on Sunday his ambulance was fired on twice as it entered Nahr Al-Bared. Taweyee was injured in the neck by a bullet.
Electricity supplies to the camp have also been cut and there is limited water.
Layla Mouad, a camp resident, told Al-Jazeera by telephone: “The situation is very tragic. There are three wounded in front of my house and we can’t evacuate them.”
Two mosques inside the camp have been hit by Lebanese tank fire, residents and the Lebanese Red Cross (LRC) told IRIN news agency. The LRC reported that four civilians had been killed and two seriously injured in one of these incidents. In the other, doctors from the PRC said civilians remained trapped beneath the rubble.
Fathallah Deeb, director of the medical centre in Nahr Al-Bared, told IRIN that there were 55 cases of dead and injured in the camp, and that they were mostly civilians, including children.
Where possible, the injured are being evacuated to nearby Beddawi refugee camp. However, a doctor at Safad Hospital in Beddawi camp complained to IRIN about the conditions. “The general situation is miserable. We cannot evacuate all the injured and some people are bleeding to death,” said Dr Yousef Assad of Safad Hospital.
The hospital is rapidly running out of resources to deal with the influx of injured from the camp, IRIN news agency reported.
Talking to the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera satellite TV station on Monday, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) general command leader, Anwar Rajab, accused gunmen from the Al-Mustaqbal (‘Future’) movement of violating a ceasefire, which was agreed on Monday morning.
A spokesperson from the Al-Mustaqbal movement denied the accusation.
Anwar Rajab warned of tensions spilling over into other areas. He said, “Nahr Al-Bared is not an orphan,” meaning there are similar refugee camps in Lebanon that will join forces to retaliate to the attacks.
Lebanon is home to more than 400,000 Palestinian refugees, according to UNRWA statistics. Many of them fled or were forced from their homes when Israel was created in 1948.
The Palestine Liberation Organisation’s envoy to Lebanon, Abbas Zaki, told Al-Jazeera on Monday, “The refugee camps, which contain around 400,000 Palestinian refugees, will not be the fanning of the flames for a civil war.”
Khalid Mash’al calls for protection for Palestinians
The head of the Damascus-based Hamas politburo, Khalid Mash’al, also telephoned the Lebanese prime minister, Fouad Siniora, on Monday and demanded that he take the necessary measures to protect the Palestinians in Nahr Al-Bared refugee camp.
According to a statement from Hamas’ media office, Siniora pledged to take the required measures in order to preserve innocent Palestinian lives.
Mash’al also made similar telephone calls to the secretary-general of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, and the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud Al-Faysal.
Fatah Al-Islam, a splinter group from Fatah Al-Intifada, which itself split from the Palestinian Fatah movement in the early 1980s, has vowed to fight. “Our fighters are ready to fight until the last drop of blood,” a spokesman for Fatah Al-Islam told Agence France Presse (AFP).
Abu Salim Taha, a spokesman for Fatah Al-Islam, told Al-Jazeera: “The army is not only opening fire on us. It is shelling blindly. If this continues, we will carry the battle outside the city of Tripoli.”
The radical group, which is headed by Shaker Al-Abssi, has been accused of having links to both Al-Qa’eda and the Syrian intelligence. Various Lebanese officials have said Syria is using Fatah Al-Islam to destabilise the Beirut government.
The Lebanese minister for economy and trade, Sami Haddad, told the BBC, “These people are trying to destabilise a democratically elected government.”
Syria’s ambassador to the United Nations, Bashar Jaafari, has denied his country has any link to the group, the BBC reported.
On Monday night a bomb exploded in the Lebanese capital of Beirut, injuring at least six people, according to a BBC report. On Sunday, a 63-year-old woman was killed by a blast in a Christian district of Beirut. It is not clear if these blasts are connected to the fighting in the north of Lebanon.