NAHR AL-BARED, Lebanon, (Reuters) – A fragile truce allowed aid trucks to enter a battered Palestinian refugee camp in north Lebanon on Tuesday after three days of fierce battles between Lebanese army troops and Islamist militants.
Civilians took advantage of the lull to flee, flying white flags from their car windows, up to 10 people crammed into some vehicles. This correspondent saw two wounded people lying in pools of blood in the street.
A number of aid workers were forced to leave when shells exploded near their convoy, killing at least two youths as they tried to collect supplies, witnesses said. U.N. aid trucks withdrew amid the blasts and gunfire.
Residents begged journalists to evacuate them. A man trying to carry a wounded woman to safety had to leave her in the street when bullets began flying.
At least 22 militants, 32 soldiers and 27 civilians have been killed since the army and the militant islamist group Fatah al-Islam began fighting on Sunday, making it Lebanon’s worst internal violence since the 1975-1990 civil war.
Fifty-five soldiers have also been wounded.
Heavy fighting at Nahr al-Bared camp, home to 40,000 people near the northern city of Tripoli, raged from dawn until the afternoon. Fatah al-Islam, an al Qaeda-inspired Sunni group has been based in the camp since last year.
Clashes died down after Fatah al-Islam said it would cease fire if the army did the same. The United Nations used the lull to try to deliver food, water and medical supplies to the camp.
Shocked camp residents emerged from their homes to see the destruction. Shell fire had torn huge holes in buildings. Gunmen roamed the rubble-strewn street. No casualty toll was available. “What the hell were they (the army) doing? Did they think they were fighting the Israeli army?” resident Mahmoud Tayyar asked.
Fatah al-Islam has little local support, but the firepower the army has turned on the camp has begun to anger Palestinians. “We have seen many wars but never seen bombardment in this way. Entire areas have been destroyed,” Jamal Laila, 40, said by telephone earlier. “Children have no milk, water or bread. “For the sake of 10, 20 or 30 individuals an entire camp is being massacred,” he said, weeping over the phone.
U.N. aid trucks had waited for hours to enter the camp, on the coast just outside Tripoli, Lebanon’s second biggest city.
A Fatah al-Islam militant blew himself up in a building in Tripoli, a security source said. There were no other casualties.
In Beirut, a bomb exploded in a shopping area in a mainly Sunni Muslim area on Monday night, wounding at least seven people. It appeared to mirror a blast on Sunday that killed a woman and wounded 10 people in a mainly Christian district. A faxed statement in the name of Fatah al-Islam claimed responsibility for the blasts and threatened more. But group spokesman Abu Salim denied it was involved.
Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, a fierce foe of Syrian influence in Lebanon, said more such attacks were likely. “Unfortunately I expect that the explosions will increase,” he told reporters, accusing Damascus of backing Fatah al-Islam.
France condemned the “cowardly” bombings in Beirut and urged the Lebanese people to unite behind their authorities.
Linking the attacks with U.N. moves to set up a tribunal to to try suspects in political assassinations in Lebanon, a French Foreign Ministry spokesman said the international community was “determined not to let itself be intimidated”.
The White House accused the militants of trying to derail U.N. moves to set up a tribunal to try suspects in assassinations and other attacks in Lebanon, but stopped short of blaming Syria.
Crowds gathered at the Palestinian refugee camp of Beddawi, 9 km (five miles) from Nahr al-Bared, demanding a ceasefire and shouting slogans against the army and government.
In Ain al-Hilweh camp in southern Lebanon, Islamist militants blocked roads. “If the fighting (in the north) doesn’t stop, the war will be with all Islam not just Fatah al-Islam,” one said.
Prime Minister Fouad Siniora’s government has said it wants to root out Fatah al-Islam, which it sees as a tool of Syria — something denied by Damascus and the group itself.
In Ramallah, the PLO’s executive committee, led by President Mahmoud Abbas, urged the Beirut government to distinguish between the “terrorist group” and Palestinians in Lebanon.