TRIPOLI, Lebanon (AP) Lebanese forces engaged in deadly fighting with al-Qaeda-linked Islamic militants in Tripoli and a nearby Palestinian refugee camp early Sunday, officials said, in the worst violence to hit the northern city in two decades.
At least seven Lebanese soldiers were killed outside the refugee camp, emergency officials said. Security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media, said only five soldiers were killed.
TV reports indicated at least three militants died in the fighting, which involved tank and grenade fire.
Residents in the Nahr el-Bared Palestinian refugee camp said at least 12 civilians were killed or wounded, but that figure could not be confirmed by Lebanese authorities, who have no presence there.
The violence adds one more destabilizing factor to conflict-ridden Lebanon, in the midst of its worst political crisis between the Western-backed government and pro-Syrian opposition since the end of the 1975-90 civil war.
The clash between army troops surrounding the Palestinian refugee camp and fighters from the Fatah Islam militant group began after a gunbattle raged in a neighborhood in Tripoli, witnesses said.
The militant group is an offshoot of the pro-Syrian Fatah Uprising. Fatah Uprising broke from the mainstream Palestinian Fatah movement in the early 1980s and has headquarters in Syria. Some Lebanese security officials consider Fatah Islam to be a radical Sunni Muslim group with links to al-Qaeda.
Major Palestinian factions Fatah and its rival Hamas have dissociated themselves from the militant group.
Witnesses said gunmen seized Lebanese army positions at the entrance to the refugee camp. The militants also opened fire on roads leading to the city and ambushed a military unit, the security officials said.
Black and white smoke billowed from the camp as a steady barrage of artillery and heavy machine gun fire from army positions pounded militant positions inside the refugee camp.
The army command would only say that there were dead and wounded among its troops and that military units were fighting back, firing from tanks to retake position lost to the militants.
The city was shuttered and roads were deserted as the crackle of gunfire could still be heard in the morning, more that five hours after the clashes began.
Troops in the Zahriyeh neighborhood could be seen besieging a building where militants had taken refuge and were demanding they surrender. They occasionally exchanged fire with the gunmen.
Scores of troops armed with automatic rifles and rocket launchers had taken positions on city streets. Dozens of onlookers gathered behind army lines to watch the siege, and the army was bringing reinforcements from other regions with 10 armored vehicles headed to Tripoli from the south.
The clashes in the camp began early morning shortly after police raided a militant-occupied apartment on a major thoroughfare in Tripoli. The police were looking for suspects in a bank robbery a day earlier in Amyoun, a town southeast of Tripoli, in which gunmen made off with $125,000 in cash.
The armed militants resisted arrest and a gunbattle ensued. It spread to surrounding streets.
The violence in Tripoli prompted Saad Hariri, leader of the parliamentary majority and head of the largest Sunni political faction, to urge supporters to cooperate with authorities in the crackdown against the militants.
The sudden explosion of violence was linked by the anti-Syrian parliamentary majority to efforts to create an international tribunal to try killers of former Premier Rafik Hariri, who was assassinated in a 2005 suicide truck bombing in Beirut. Syria opposes the tribunal.
The U.N. Security Council is considering a draft resolution to impose the court after Lebanon’s government and the pro-Syrian opposition failed to agree on approving it in Beirut.
The anti-Syrian majority coalition says Syria was using its allies in Lebanon to undermine approval of the court.
A U.N. investigation has linked senior Syrian security officials and allies in the Lebanese security services to the assassination. Damascus, which was forced to withdraw its army from Lebanon two months after Hariri’s February 2005 assassination in a suicide truck bombing in Beirut, has denied the accusations.
Tripoli, a predominantly Sunni Muslim city, is known to have Islamic fundamentalists.
The city had not seen violence on Sunday’s scale since 1986 when Syrian troops then in control fought a rebellion in the city. In 2000, violence flared in a nearby region of Dinniyah between troops and Islamic militants in which more than a dozen people were killed.
In April, a Lebanese soldier was killed in a shootout with Fatah Islam gunmen at the edge of Nahr el-Bared, a camp of 30,000 Palestinian refugees.
Lebanon’s anti-Syrian government blamed Fatah Islam for a bus bombing in February in the Christian heartland northeast of Beirut that killed three people and say the group is merely a front for Syrian intelligence. The group has denied involvement in the bus bombing.
The dozen Palestinian refugee camps scattered in Lebanon are off limits to authorities and some are controlled by armed guerrillas and are havens for outlaws.
Lebanese troops usually cordon the camps with checkpoints.