EIN EL-HILWEH CAMP, Lebanon, (AP) – Violence sparked by a two-week old confrontation between the Lebanese army and al-Qaeda inspired militants spread to a second Palestinian refugee camp in the southern part of the country, killing two soldiers, police said Monday.
After sporadic clashes Sunday evening, fighting picked up overnight and resumed briefly Monday morning as Islamic militants of the Jund al-Sham group fired rocket propelled grenades at the army on the edge of the southern Ein el-Hilweh camp, the largest of 12 Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. The army fired back.
Police said five Lebanese soldiers were wounded in the Ein el-Hilweh clashes. One Jund al-Sham official was wounded and several houses belonging to members of the group were burned by army fire, Lebanese security and Palestinian officials said.
Jund al-Sham, which is based in Ein el-Hilweh, has claimed responsibility or been blamed for a number of bombings and gunbattles, mainly in Lebanon and Syria. Syrian officials have portrayed Jund al-Sham, which is Arabic for Soldiers of historic Syria, as the most active militant group in their country. In Lebanon, the militants are believed to number in the dozens.
About 60 miles to the north along the Mediterranean Sea coast, another militant group, Fatah Islam, continued its 16-day standoff against the army in the Nahr el-Bared Palestinian refugee camp. The sound of gunfire exchanges had tapered by the morning, suggesting the army was conducting pinpoint commando operations inside the camp.
The army brought reinforcements to Nahr el-Bared Monday. Two convoys of a total of 12 armored carriers were spotted heading toward the camp along with five trucks, each carrying 20 soldiers, and several small military vehicles.
The army has been pounding Fatah Islam positions at Nahr el-Bared since May 20 and has moved tanks and armored carriers into the camp in a push to crush the militants, who first appeared in Lebanon last fall and are suspected of having links to al-Qaeda.
Many in Lebanon believed the army would be able to quickly crush Fatah Islam inside Nahr el-Bared, but after several days of fierce battles using artillery and tanks, the troops continued to face strong resistance.
The relentless bombardment at Nahr el-Bared, which is located on the outskirts of this port city, has angered Palestinians in some of Lebanon’s 11 other refugee camps, a possible recipe for spreading violence.
Back at Ein el-Hilweh, where Jund al-Sham militants are believed to be trying to occupy the army and take the pressure off their Fatah Islam allies, a member of Asbat al-Ansar, another Islamic group that has refused to join the fight and is mediating an end to the confrontation, was killed in the clashes, the officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not allowed to talk to the media.
Asbat al-Ansar, Arabic for the Partisans’ League, is on the U.S. list of terrorist groups.
An official with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ moderate Fatah faction, said Palestinian groups would be meeting to try to ease the tensions at Ein el-Hilweh, blaming Islamic factions for blocking Fatah from going after Jund al-Sham.
“The camp cannot be taken hostage by 40 gangsters,” said Col. Abu Walid Ashi, a Fatah spokesman at Ein el-Hilweh, referring to the Jund al-Sham militants.
“If they let us, we can finish them off in hours,” he said. But he warned violence could increase if Fatah decided to make a move against the militants.
Similar attempts to reach a compromise have failed to quell the fighting up north at Nahr el-Bared. The Lebanese government has demanded that Fatah Islam surrender, but the militant group’s deputy leader rejected the call in a telephone interview with The Associated Press.
“This is not only impossible, this is unthinkable. Our blood is cheaper than handing over our weapons and surrendering,” Abu Hureira, a Lebanese whose real name is Shehab al-Qaddour, said Sunday. He also denied the army had made significant progress in its offensive.
“I am still in the same position since the war began,” Abu Hureira said. “Our morals are high and the army did not make any advance.”
Fatah Islam spokesman Abu Salim Taha, told the AP by cell phone that five Fatah Islam members, including a senior leader, have been killed and seven wounded since Friday, when the latest army offensive began.
A senior Lebanese army officer said nine Lebanese troops have been killed at Nahr el-Bared and about 40 others wounded since Friday. The body of one more soldier was retrieved Sunday.
The casualties raised the army’s total death toll to 45 at Nahr el-Bared and two at Ein el-Hilweh since fighting erupted at the northern camp 16 days ago. At least 20 civilians and about 60 militants have also been killed in the northern Lebanon fighting, but casualties in the camp in the last four days were unknown because relief organizations were banned from entering.