BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) – Prime Minister Fuad Saniora vowed in an address to the nation on Thursday his government would uproot Islamic militants battling the army in a Palestinian refugee camp.
“We will work to root out and strike at terrorism, but we will embrace and protect our brothers in the camps,” Saniora said in a televised speech, insisting Lebanon has no quarrel with the 400,000 Palestinian refugees who live in the country.
His address came a day after the Lebanese defense minister issued an ultimatum to the Fatah Islam militants barricaded in the Nahr el-Bared refugee camp, many of whom are believed to be Arabs from other countries, to surrender or face a military assault.
Saniora said the Fatah Islam militant group holed up in the camp was “a terrorist organization that claims to be Islamic and to defend Palestine” and was “attempting to ride on the suffering and the struggle of the Palestinian people.”
The fighting, which broke out Sunday, has killed some 50 combatants and many civilians.
A truce went into effect Tuesday afternoon to allow thousands of civilians to escape the battles. Sporadic gunfire could be heard again on Thursday.
There have been complaints that the army’s artillery attacks have inflicted heavy damage on the buildings in the camp, causing civilian casualties.
Although Palestinian factions have dissociated themselves from Fatah Islam, refugees in other camps across Lebanon were seething with anger over the bombardment, raising concern that violence could spread. “You are our brothers,” Saniora told Palestinian refugees in his TV address. “We share with you the bad times before the good ones.”
There have been eyewitness accounts of Palestinian men being briefly detained for questioning about conditions inside the camp and for information about Fatah Islam.
Human Rights Watch has expressed concern about the conduct of warfare, stressing on the need to protect civilians in times of fighting. “Legitimate security concerns cannot justify arbitrary arrests of any Palestinian,” Nadim Houry of the human rights group told The Associated Press. “There has to be an approach taking into account that the Palestinians in the camp are not the enemy,” he said.
Meanwhile, Defense Minister Elias Murr was criticized by one of the major newspapers for comments he made that the army will not rest until it makes the militants pay heavily.
“We have 27 martyrs from the army and there should be 270 killed or captured from the other side in order for the battle to be equal,” Murr said in an interview with al-Arabiya on Wednesday.
“This is vengeful logic, not a logic of the state,” said the influential As-Safir newspaper on its front page Thursday.