Middle East News
Fighting between militants, Lebanese army leaves 42 dead (3rd Roundup)
May 20, 2007, 19:59 GMT
Tripoli, Lebanon - More than 40 people were killed in northern Lebanon on Sunday in fierce fighting between the Lebanese army and al-Qaeda-linked militants who ambushed soldiers near a Palestinian refugee camp.
The battles had quietened by Sunday evening but tensions remained high. The streets of Tripoli were left deserted - the site of earlier gun battles that killed 23 army soldiers and some 19 al-Qaeda fighters, according to the latest casualty reports.
Lebanese troops launched an assault on a building in Tripoli where militants from Fatah al-Islam were holed up, after a morning of deadly shootouts at the outskirts of the Palestinian refugee camp of Naher al-Bard.
'We are now in control of the situation in Tripoli,' said the head of Lebanese security forces, General Asraf Rifi.
The bodies of seven soldiers, including a high-ranking officer, were discovered after darkness fell at an army post which had been occupied by the militants during the day, an army source said.
Lebanese police said the first attacks occurred while police officers were trying to arrest suspects linked to a bank robbery, who were also believed to be members of Fatah al-Islam.
Among the militants killed were two high-ranking leaders of the group. A Lebanese high-ranking security source identified the two Fatah al-Islam leaders as Abu Yazen and his aide Saddam al Haj Dib.
Yazen and Dib are believed to be the masterminds of a bus bombing in a Christian area near Beirut in February that killed three people and wounded 20 others.
The Lebanese army had tightened its grip around the Nahr al-Bared camp since authorities charged Fatah al-Islam members with the bus bombings.
The militant group has vowed to open the 'gates of fire' against the Lebanese army to avenge the killing of its militants.
Lebanese police also confirmed to Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa that Dib is the brother of Yossef al Haj Dib, who is wanted by the German authorities for a train bombing in Germany last July.
Saddam was still at large as the trial of his brother Jihad Hamad and four other men started last month in Lebanon. Al Haj Dib, who is in custody in a Berlin jail, is being tried in absentia in Lebanon.
The army also arrested around five members of the Fatah al-Islam group and were seen loading them under heavy security in trucks.
The International Committee of the Red Cross appealed for a truce to allow any wounded from the artillery exchanges between the army and the militants to be evacuated from the camp, home to some 30,000 refugees.
According to red cross sources, some 30 Lebanese soldiers, 16 police, seven civilians and 40 refugees from inside the Naher al- Bard camp were wounded in the fighting.
The clashes prompted the government to hold an emergency cabinet meeting in the presence of security officials.
'The army was given a green light to take the necessary measures to restore security in northern Lebanon,' Information Minister Ghazi Arid said.
The fighting drew condemnation from various rival Lebanese factions as well as Palestinian groups, who all called for the backing of the Lebanese army.
The head of the anti-Syrian parliamentary, Saad Hariri, who met with Lebanese Premier Fouad Seniora late Sunday, told reporters 'it is time to take decisive decisions ... such groups like Fatah al- Islam have no links what-so-ever with Islam.'
The militant Shiite Hezbollah movement also issued a statement denouncing the attack on the Lebanese army.
'We are against any attack against the army and the Lebanese security forces which deeply destabilize the situation in the country,' the statement said.
Pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud and Seniora, whose backers have refused to recognize each other's authority for months, both issued calls for support for the security forces.
Lahoud called on the 'judicial authorities to interrogate those militants in custody to determine who is behind their actions and what is the goal of their attacks.'
He urged the public to 'cooperate with the judiciary and the security forces to restore calm.'
Sultan Abou el Aineen, head of the Palestinian Fatah organization which is linked to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas condemned the Fatah al-Islam attack on the army and offered full support to the Lebanese army.
Anti-Syrian Druze leader Walid Jumblatt also joined other Lebanese leaders in supporting the army and security forces in their fight against Fatah al-Islam fighters. He said that he fears what is happening in northern Lebanon is the beginning of something bigger and more dangerous.
Christian leader Samir Geagea said that Fatah al-Islam is an offshoot of Syrian intelligence and its terrorist activities must end.
Some Lebanese anti-Syrian members of parliament said the fighting with the Fatah al-Islam, which the government says is backed by Syria, seemed timed to try to derail UN moves to set up an international court to investigate the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri.
A UN probe has implicated Syria and Lebanese officials in the Hariri killing, but Damascus has denied any involvement. It also denies any link to Fatah al-Islam.
The United States, France and Britain last week circulated a draft UN resolution that would impose the court on Lebanon.
Syria announced on Sunday that it has closed two of its border crossings into northern Lebanon because of the security situation there. The main Masnaa crossing in east Lebanon remained open.
Under a 1969 Arab agreement, the Lebanese army is not allowed to enter into Palestinian camps, and all security inside the camp is in the hands of Palestinian factions.
According to Lebanese security sources, Fatah al-Islam was formed by fighters of the former pro-Syrian Fatah Uprising group.
The sources said the group is backed by the Syrian intelligence forces and is using bank robberies in northern Lebanon as a source of funding.
Fatah al-Islam statements have appeared on fundamentalist websites known to publish al-Qaeda statements.© 2007 dpa - Deutsche Presse-Agentur