NAHR AL-BARED, Lebanon (AFP) – Hundreds of refugees living inside a besieged Palestinian camp in north Lebanon are facing increasingly difficult and precarious conditions, six weeks into an open-ended battle between the army and Islamists.
“The humanitarian situation is getting worse and worse,” said Virginia de la Guardia of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), pointing out that water and electricity remain cut since the fighting broke out on May 20.
Amid sporadic exchanges of gunfire on Sunday between the Lebanese army and diehards of Fatah al-Islam, which the military says now number “a few dozen”, a correspondent at the scene also reported twice-hourly blasts of shellfire.
“There is no deadline for the operation,” an army spokesman told AFP. “It will finish when the terrorists surrender to the judicial authorities.”
Lebanese authorities estimate that fewer than 1,000 of its original population of 31,000 remain in the coastal camp of Nahr al-Bared, near the port city of Tripoli, having taken advantage of lulls in the fighting to flee.
“It’s impossible to give any accurate figure,” acknowledged de la Guardia.
She said relief workers had been unable to deliver food to the camp since June 20 while the last evacuation took place on Wednesday, with just one person brought out.
Fadr Bader Abu Mustapha, a member of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, contacted by mobile phone inside the camp, said the situation was becoming desperate.
“The humanitarian situation is awful. We have gone 15 days without fresh food and water,” he said. “Healthwise, it is terrible. And it smells very bad because of all the dead bodies and dead animals.”
De la Guardia could not say how many corpses have been abandoned in the rubble, pointing out that the fighting has moved near the camp’s southern entrance which had been the point of access for relief work.
In any case, “the ambulances from the Palestine Red Crescent do not go further than one kilometer (just over half a mile) inside,” the ICRC delegate said. “They can’t go all over the place.”
Abu Mustapha said that residents left cowering inside the shattered camp were angered by Friday’s deaths of two fellow Nahr al-Bared residents during a demonstration by those displaced.
“There was a lot of anger inside after the protest but there is no way for anyone here to react since people can’t go out at all,” he said.
Medics at a Palestinian-run hospital said two men were killed and about 40 people wounded as the protest by hundreds of refugees came under fire from Lebanese soldiers at a checkpoint outside the nearby Beddawi refugee camp.
The army insists that its troops took all necessary measures to avoid casualties among hundreds of demonstrators who were demanding the right to return to their homes.
“They were trying to force their way through the checkpoint, carrying metal objects and sticks, ignoring warning shots,” the military said.
According to a count compiled from official figures, the fighting has cost at least 169 lives, including 84 soldiers, in and around Nahr al-Bared. The toll does not include the corpses of fighters abandoned in the camp.