NAHR AL-BARED, Lebanon, (Reuters) – The United States and Arab allies sent military aid to Lebanon on Friday and the Lebanese army deployed extra troops to a Palestinian camp where it has been battling Islamist militants this week.
A fragile truce held between the army and the Fatah al-Islam militant group in northern Lebanon at the Nahr al-Bared camp, where the faction is based, despite sporadic overnight clashes.
Lebanese Defence Minister Elias al-Murr said the government was leaving room for negotiations but the army would act if necessary. “What is required is the handing over of those terrorists and criminals,” he told reporters.
Murr gave no details on the talks, but a delegation from the various main Palestinian factions have been holding extensive meetings with Lebanese leaders in a bid to end the crisis.
At least 33 soldiers and 25 militants have been killed in what is the worst internal violence since the 1975-1990 civil war. Thousands have fled the camp, where Palestinian sources say at least 11 civilians have been killed and 100 wounded.
At least six U.S. and Arab military supply planes arrived at Beirut airport carrying ammunition and other light equipment from U.S. depots in the region and from Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, security sources said. “The United States has existing agreements to provide (military) assistance to Lebanon. Under those agreements we are expediting the delivery of supplies,” said Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for the White House National Security Council, acknowledging that some shipments had arrived.
UNRWA, the U.N. agency which cares for Palestinian refugees, said around 15,000 people were still in the camp, home to some 40,000 before it came under heavy army shelling this week. “The humanitarian situation in Nahr al-Bared is deteriorating,” UNRWA spokeswoman Hoda Elturk said. “We have our trucks full of food and water ready,” she said, but added: “It’s not secure enough for our staff to enter.”
Extra Lebanese soldiers arrived overnight at the camp, which the army is not allowed to enter under a 1969 Arab agreement, witnesses said. The 40,000-strong army is already stretched with significant deployments along the border with Israel in south Lebanon, Syria to the north and east and in and around Beirut.
Many army units deployed in Beirut for months to stem rising sectarian tensions amid a deep political crisis, appear to have left their positions and headed north, witnesses said.
Beirut requested more U.S. military aid after fighting erupted on Sunday. Washington voiced support for the government, calling Fatah al-Islam “a brutal group of violent extremists”.
Arab states, many of which have fought their own battles with Sunni Islamist militants, have also pledged military aid. Lebanese leaders have vowed to stamp out the group, which is led by a Palestinian but has little support among Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee community of around 400,000. Military analysts say it will be very hard for the army to deal Fatah al-Islam a decisive blow unless it enters the camp.
Lebanon’s defence ministry estimates between 50 and 60 militants have been killed in the fighting, which the army says started after Fatah al-Islam launched unprovoked attacks on soldiers. The militants say they have acted in self-defence.
Thousands who fled the fighting are sheltering in a nearby refugee camp where relief workers are delivering aid.
Fatah al-Islam is inspired by the Sunni militant group al Qaeda. The Lebanese authorities say they have arrested Saudi, Algerian, Tunisian, Syrian and Lebanese members of the group.
Anti-Syrian Lebanese leaders say Fatah al-Islam is a tool of Syrian intelligence. Damascus and the group deny the charge.