NAHR AL-BARED, Lebanon, (Reuters) – An uneasy calm settled over a Palestinian refugee camp in north Lebanon on Friday after the Lebanese army declared victory in 33 days of fighting against al Qaeda-inspired militants.
The battle for Nahr al-Bared camp in which 172 people were killed was Lebanon’s worst outbreak of internal violence since a 1975-90 civil war.
Smoke curled from buildings shattered by shelling at one entrance to the camp, but only a few explosions and a brief rattle of gunfire after dawn broke the silence. Security sources said the blasts were caused by soldiers blowing up booby-trapped buildings and mines laid by the militants.
Defence Minister Elias al-Murr declared victory over the Fatah al-Islam group on Thursday, saying troops had seized all its positions and would lay siege to the camp until surviving militants surrendered. De-mining work would also continue.
Fatah al-Islam, believed to have had a few hundred fighters at the outset, relayed to Palestinian mediators its agreement to stop shooting shortly after Murr’s late-night announcement.
Murr said many of the group’s leaders had been killed. Remaining fighters had pulled back from the edges of Nahr al-Bared into civilian areas deep inside the camp. He said the army would keep up its siege until all the militants gave themselves up, including their leader, Shaker al-Abssi. “They have to surrender … It’s not good enough to say Abssi was killed. If he is dead, give us the body.” But analysts said the Lebanese army’s victory alone would not wipe out the al Qaeda-inspired jihadis who are exploiting the country’s security gaps and sectarian splits.
Fatah al-Islam has Lebanese as well as Palestinians, Syrians and Saudis among its few hundred fighters. Its forces, some of whom have been hardened by combat against U.S. troops in Iraq, contested every inch of the army’s advance on their strongholds.
Lebanese soldiers barred anyone, including journalists, from entering the camp. Murr had said it would remain a military zone. “We’re hearing that the fighting has stopped but there are still some explosions,” Hind Abdulal, a 35-year-old mother of 10, told Reuters at the nearby Beddawi camp where she and her family, like thousands of refugees, had taken shelter. “We’re ready to go and stay on the sand instead of staying here (but) we know there are mines and booby traps,” she said.
Dozens of young Palestinians gathered at a U.N. school at Beddawi chanting slogans to be allowed back into Nahr al-Bared. “We want a fast return, not a fast meal,” one sign said.
The fighting had focused on militant strongholds on the camp’s outskirts. Security forces are barred from entering Lebanon’s 12 Palestinian refugee camps by a 1969 Arab agreement.
At least 172 people, including 76 soldiers, 60 militants and 36 civilians and non-combatants, were killed in the fighting. Much of the camp, home to about 40,000 refugees, was destroyed.
Palestinian mediators were scheduled to meet Saudi diplomats later in the day to discuss the fate of Saudi nationals who had joined Fatah al-Islam, and ways of funding reconstruction in the camp.
Palestinian sources said at least seven senior Fatah al-Islam members were killed, including a Saudi cleric named Abu al-Haris. The group’s military commander Abu Hurayra and its spiritual mentor Abu Bakr were both badly wounded. Its senior spokesman, Abu Salim Taha, was also wounded, the sources said.
The army says Fatah al-Islam started the conflict on May 20 by attacking its posts. The group, which includes fighters from across the Arab world, says it has been acting in self-defence.
Murr said some of the fighters belonged to al Qaeda. Fatah al-Islam’s Abssi has said the group has no organisational ties to Osama bin Laden’s network but shares its militant ideology.
Most of the camp’s residents fled during the early days of the fighting to shelter in the nearby Beddawi refugee camp.