TRIPOLI, Lebanon, (AP) – Lebanese troops tightened a siege of a Palestinian refugee camp Monday where a shadowy group suspected of ties to al-Qaeda was holed up, pounding the camp with artillery a day after the worst eruption of violence since the end of the country’s 1975-90 civil war.
Lebanese officials said one of the men killed in Sunday’s fighting was a suspect in a failed German train bombing — a new sign that the camp had become a refuge for militants planning attacks outside of Lebanon. In the past, others in the camp have said they were aiming to send trained fighters into Iraq.
Saddam El-Hajdib was the fourth-highest ranking official in the Fatah Islam group, an official said Monday, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media. El-Hajdib had been on trial in absentia in Lebanon in connection with the failed German plot.
The death toll remained uncertain as hundreds of Lebanese army troops, backed by tanks and armored carriers, surrounded the Nahr el-Bared refugee camp on Tripoli’s outskirts early Monday. M-48 battle tanks unleashed their cannon fire on the camp, sending orange flames followed by white plumes of smoke. The militants fired mortars toward the troops at daybreak Monday.
At least 27 soldiers and 20 militants had been killed, Lebanese security officials said Monday, but they did not know how many civilians had been killed inside the camp because it is off-limits to their authority.
One official in the camp said a total of 34 people had been killed inside the camp, including 14 civilians. But that could not be independently confirmed and other estimates of civilian deaths were lower.
An army officer at the frontline, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said troops directed concentrated fire at buildings known to house militants.
“Everything we know that they were present in has been targeted,” he told The Associated Press.
Ahmed Methqal, a Muslim cleric in the camp, told al-Jazeera television by phone that sniper fire had confined the camp’s 30,000 residents to their houses and that five civilians had been killed.
“They are targeting buildings, with people in them,” he said. “What’s the guilt of children, women and the elderly?”
Mohammed Hanafi, identified by al-Jazeera as a human rights activist in the camp, said a total of 34 people had been killed and 150 wounded.
It was unclear if Lebanese authorities had known El-Hajdib’s whereabouts, or the whereabouts of the group’s leader, before a gunbattle first broke out in Tripoli, a predominantly Sunni city known to have Islamic militants, witnesses said. After the first street fighting, the army began its siege of the nearby camp.
But Lebanon has struggled to defeat armed groups that control pockets of Lebanon — especially inside the country’s 12 Palestinian refugee camps housing 350,000 people, which Lebanese authorities can’t enter.
Some camps have become havens for Islamic militants accused of carrying out attacks in the country and of sending recruits to fight U.S.-led coalition forces in Iraq.
Palestinian officials in the West Bank rushed to distance themselves from the Fatah Islam group and urged Palestinian refugees in the camp to isolate the militant group, which first set up in the northern Lebanese camp last fall after its leader was released from a Syrian jail.
The group’s leader, a Palestinian named Shaker al-Absi wanted in three countries, said in a March interview with The New York Times that he was trying to spread al-Qaeda’s ideology and was training fighters inside the camp for attacks on other countries.
He would not specify which countries but expressed anger toward the United States. And he was sentenced to death earlier in absentia along with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq killed last summer by U.S. forces in Iraq, for the 2002 assassination of an American diplomat in Jordan.
Al-Absi had been in custody in Syria until last fall but was released and set up in the camp, where he apparently found some recruits, Lebanese officials said.
The Lebanese Broadcasting Corp. TV station reported Sunday that also among the dead militants also were men from Bangladesh, Yemen and other Arab countries, underlining the group’s reach outside of Lebanon.
Prime Minister Fouad Siniora said Sunday the fighting was a “dangerous attempt at hitting Lebanese security.”
Major Palestinian factions have dissociated themselves from the group. Lebanese Sunni political and religious leaders backed the army and the government.
Meanwhile, in Beirut late Sunday, an explosion across the street from a busy shopping mall killed a 63-year-old woman and injured 12 other people in the Christian sector of the Lebanese capital — further raising fears of unrest, police said.
Beirut and surrounding suburbs have seen a series of explosions in the last two years, many targeting Christian areas. Authorities blamed Fatah Islam for Feb. 13 bombings of commuter buses that killed three people, but the group denied involvement.
Syria has denied involvement in any of the bombings, but Lebanon’s national police commander Maj. Gen. Ashraf Rifi said Sunday that Damascus was using the Fatah Islam group as a covert way to wreak havoc in the country.