Lebanon: Refugee camp devastated by army assault

May 31, 2007

Sporadic fighting was reported to have erupted on May 29 on the edges of the Nahr al Bared Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon between the Lebanese Army and a Sunni Arab Islamist group called Fatah al Islam. On May 21, the Lebanese Army had laid siege to the camp and its 45,000 residents after the pro-US government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora alleged that members of the little known Islamist group had carried out a bank robbery the previous day.

Government officials also claimed that Fatah al Islam members had carried out a raid on a Lebanese military post at the entrance to the refugee camp, and that 27 Lebanese soldiers had died in the subsequent fighting.

The Lebanese Army began firing artillery shells into Nahr al Bared on May 21 at what it claimed were Fatah al Islam positions. Scores of camp residents were reported to have been killed or wounded as a result. United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNWRA) officials said that UN staffers were among the wounded.

Conditions inside the refugee camp became increasingly unbearable as the army continued firing tank rounds and artillery shells into it. Electricity was cut to the camp and there was a limited supply of water. CNN reported General Bilal Aslam as saying on May 22 that the army had "prevented supplies and aid from entering the camp". He also said Fatah al Islam fighters were stationed on the outskirts of the camp, but not in it.

There are 12 Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, inhabited by 400,000 people. Under a 1969 Arab League agreement, the Lebanese Army is not permitted to enter them.

On May 22, Reuters reporter Khaled Yacoub Oweis, believed to be the only journalist to have made it inside the camp, told CBC News that the camp is a scene of devastation. "Homes and buildings have gaping holes in them, cars are burned and people are lying dead and wounded in pools of blood in the streets", CBC News reported.

"The humanitarian situation is very, very bad", an UNWRA spokesperson told journalists, "and deteriorating every minute". There are no hospitals inside the camp, and the sole health-care centre was unable to stay open during the exchanges of gunfire between the army and Fatah al Islam fighters.

On May 24, Siniora, in a nationally televised address, vowed to "uproot terrorism" from Lebanon. Following his speech, sporadic fighting again erupted between the Lebanese Army and Fatah al Islam at Nahr al Bared's main entrance.

On May 25, the US began flying supplies into Beirut for the Lebanese Army. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reaffirmed Washington's support for the Siniora government.

A UN staffer told journalists on May 28 that during the previous week representatives of the mainstream Palestinian political groups had conducted negotiations with Fatah al Islam to find a peaceful solution to the situation.

On May 30, Lebanese authorities charged 20 members of Fatah al Islam — 19 Lebanese and one Syrian — with terrorism. Fatah al Islam first emerged in November, reportedly out of a split from a secular Palestinian group named Fatah al Intifada (itself a split-off from the Fatah party of the late Yasser Arafat).

Nahr al Bared's residents have reported that Fatah al Islam has very few Palestinian members. Most of its members, estimated to be no more than 150, are Lebanese and Saudi Arabians.

In a March 7 article in the New Yorker magazine, renowned US investigative journalist Seymour Hersh reported that Alastair Crooke — a former member of Britain's MI6 who works for the Beirut-based think-tank Conflicts Forum — told him: "The Lebanese government is opening space for these people to come in. It could be very dangerous." Crooke said that he had been told that almost immediately after the split that established Fatah al Islam, "they were being offered weapons and money by people presenting themselves as representatives of the Lebanese government's interests — presumably to take on Hezbollah".

In a May 24 CNN interview, Hersh said that the funding of Fatah al Islam was a "covert program" that Washington "joined in with the Saudis as part of a bigger, broader program" of backing the Arab world's Sunni elites against the rise of Shiite-based nationalist movements such as Hezbollah.

Hersh said that when he was in Beirut he "talked to officials who acknowledged the reason they were tolerating the radical jihadist groups was because they were seen as a protection against Hezbollah".

The Lebanese media has reported that there had been a falling out between the Fatah al Islam and its financiers in the Lebanese government, the most prominent being the Saudi-Lebanese billionaire Saad Hariri, leading the group to carry out the attempted bank robbery,

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