NAHR EL-BARED REFUGEE CAMP, Lebanon, (AP) -A senior Islamic militant leader vowed Wednesday that fighters holed up in a Palestinian refugee camp besieged by Lebanese troops will never surrender or leave and will fight to the death if attacked.
The militant, who goes by the name Abu Hureira and identified himself as Fatah Islam’s deputy leader, spoke to The Associated Press while sitting on the floor at the end of a dimly lit building basement off a main street deep inside the Nahr el-Bared camp.
The bearded Abu Hureira, who appeared relaxed and was leaning against a pillow, said his men will respect the cease-fire currently in place after three days of intense fighting, as long as the Lebanese army continues to refrain from shooting.
“If they advance toward the camp, we will open fire,” he said. “They will not enter except over our dead bodies.”
The group’s determination to stay and fight, and the government’s insistence to finish them off, could make a major military showdown inevitable.
About half of the camp’s civilian population — more than 15,000 — have fled since Tuesday night, hours after a truce began. Abu Hureira said the departure of civilians from the camp would actually help, rather than hinder, the militants’ ability to fight.
“We had a problem with the civilians who were present here. They were an obstacle. We were worried about them. Now we have no problem,” he said.
Seven armed fighters guarded the building where Abu Hureira spoke. The seven used a different dialect than the Arabic commonly spoken by Lebanese and Palestinians. Their accent seemed North African.
Abu Hureira, on the other hand, spoke with a Lebanese accent and appeared to be in his 30s. He did not allow an AP photographer to photograph him and would not permit a flashlight to be shown on him. He wore a beige shirt and dark pants, and his bare feet were covered by a blanket.
The entrance to the building was packed with canned food and fruit.
Despite his relaxed manner, Abu Hureira vowed that Fatah Islam would never accept any settlement demanding that its fighters surrender.
“We are ready to enter into a permanent cease-fire on condition we stay, military action against us is halted and life is allowed to return to normal in the camp,” he said.
But, with an assault rifle in front of him, he warned: “If they enter, we are ready. They can try but they won’t be able to. They will face a massacre.”
He said the group had more than 500 fighters, and only 10 had been killed and eight wounded in the fighting so far, which broke out Sunday.
Lebanese officials have said 29 Lebanese soldiers and more than 17 militants have been killed, and relief officials have said at least 20 civilians inside the camp also have been killed.
Abu Salim Taha, spokesman for the group, confirmed Abu Hureira was the deputy leader to Fatah Islam chief Shaker al-Absi, a Palestinian with connections to al-Qaeda in Iraq’s former leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
“We are ready for anyone who turns a gun against us,” Taha said by phone from the camp. “It is a matter of life and death, and we will not surrender.”