Lebanon is in the midst of its worst political crisis between the Western-backed government and Hezbollah-led opposition and now, fighting has broken out between the Lebanese Army and militant Islamic groups hiding out in Palestinian refugee camps.
Lebanese troops are pounding a Palestinian refugee camp with bombs and tank fire for a second day in their battle against militant groups who are suspected of having ties to al-Qaida. This is said to be the worst outbreak of violence since the end of the 1975-90 civil war.
Lebanese security officials are reporting that almost 50 combatants were killed in the first day of fighting on Sunday. There were at least 27 soldiers and 20 militants killed. However, how many civilian casualties there are inside the Nahr el-Bared camp on the outskirts of the northern port city of Tripoli is not known because emergency workers and security officials have not been able to get into the camp, because it is off-limits to them.
Today, Palestinian officials in the refugee camp are reporting that at least nine civilians were killed and around 40 were wounded.
This deadly battle is a showdown between the Lebanese Army and militant groups, primarily one called Fatah Islam, who have formed in Lebanon's Palestinian refugee camps. These camps are home to tens of thousands of people who are living in the midst of abject poverty and high crime.
Lebanon troops are not entering the camps and they say they have no authority to enter the camps after agreements were made with the Palestinians that give the PLO authority over them. However, it is believed that Lebanon is afraid of entering the camps because it could cause widespread unrest, be very costly and could possibly spark pan-Arab sympathy for the Palestinian refugees that would trigger a backlash against the country.
Black smoke engulfed the skies over the camp as fires raged and heavy gunfire and explosions rang out constantly. The fierce fighting resumed after a brief truce that allowed the evacuation of 18 wounded civilians, according to Saleh Badran, an official with the Palestinian Red Crescent Society.
The Fatah Islam's leader, a Palestinian named Shaker al-Absi, has said his inspiration is al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and he has been training militants to carry out attacks in other countries. Lebanese officials are saying that the camps have become a refuge for Fatah Islam militants who plan and carry out attacks outside of Lebanon. They say that one of the men killed in Sunday's action was a suspect in a failed German train bombing. In the past, others affiliated with the group in the camp have said they were aiming to send trained fighters into Iraq and the group's leader has been linked to al-Qaida in Iraq.
Hundreds of Lebanese army troops, backed up by tanks and armored carriers, surrounded the refugee camp Monday and the M-48 battle tanks unleashed cannon fire on the camp. The militants fired mortars toward the troops at daybreak.
A front line army officer says that his troops are directing their fire at buildings they know house militants in the camp. His troops also have orders to strike hard at any target that fires back at them. "Everything we know that they were present in has been targeted."
A spokesman for Fatah Islam, Abu Salim, has warned that if the army bombardment did not stop, the militants would step up attacks by rockets and artillery "and would take the battle outside Tripoli". He did not elaborate on the threat, holding authorities responsible for the consequences. "It is a life-or-death battle. Their aim is to wipe out Fatah Islam. We will respond and we know how to respond."
Another refugee camp in southern Lebanon, Ein el-Hilweh, was also surrounded by Lebanese troops and the tension rose as armed militants went on alert.
The whole thing started after police raided Fatah Islam hideouts in several buildings in Tripoli. They were searching for men who were wanted for a recent bank robbery. A gun battle broke out at one of the buildings and troops were called in to assist the police.
Militants then burst out of the nearby refugee camp, seizing Lebanese army positions, capturing two armored vehicles and ambushing troops. Lebanese troops later laid siege to the refugee camp where Fatah Islam militants were believed to be hiding, unleashing fire from tanks, artillery and heavy machine guns.
Al-Absi is wanted in three countries and has said in the past that he is trying to spread al-Qaida's ideology and that he was currently training fighters inside the refugee camp to carry out attacks on other countries. At the time he made the inflammatory statements, he would not say which countries he was planning attacks against but he did express a great deal of anger toward the United States. He has been sentenced to death in absentia for the 2002 assassination of an American diplomat in Jordan. He was convicted along with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi who was the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq. Al-Zarqawi was killed last summer by U.S. forces in Iraq.
Lebanese officials say that Al-Absi was in Syrian custody until last fall, however, after he was released he began to set up his group in the camps and found many recruits. It is believed that Fatah Islam has up to 100 members who come from many Arab countries including Saudi Arabia and Syria. There are also local sympathizers who belong to the conservative Salafi branch of Islam.
Lebanon's national police commander, Maj. Gen. Ashraf Rifi, denies that the Fatah Islam has links to al-Qaida saying instead that it was a Syrian-bred group. He believes that Damascus is trying to cause havoc in his country: "Perhaps there are some deluded people among them but they are not al- Qaida. This is imitation al-Qaida, a 'Made in Syria' one."
A human rights activist, Mohammed Hanafi, says that 34 people had been killed inside, including 14 civilians, and 150 wounded. Those numbers could not be confirmed. Other estimates of civilian deaths are lower.
Ahmed Methqal, a Muslim cleric who lives inside the camp says that five civilians had been killed: "You can say there is a massacre going on in the camp of children and women who have nothing to do with Fatah Islam. They are targeting buildings, with people in them. What's the guilt of children, women and the elderly?" He also says that sniper fire is confining the 30,000 residents of the camp into their homes.