NAHR AL-BARED, Lebanon (Reuters) - Lebanese troops battled Sunni Islamist militants based in a Palestinian refugee camp on Sunday and 50 people were killed in Lebanon’s bloodiest internal feuding since a 1975-90 civil war.
Twenty-five soldiers and 15 militants died in fighting which erupted before dawn at Nahr al-Bared camp and the nearby Sunni Muslim city of Tripoli, in north Lebanon. Forty soldiers were wounded.
A cabinet minister said the fighting with Fatah al-Islam, which the government says is backed by Syria, seemed timed to try to derail U.N. moves to set up an international court to try those suspected of carrying out political killings in Lebanon.
In Beirut, an explosive device planted under a car parked by a popular shopping mall in the mainly Christian east of the capital killed a woman, a security source said. At least 10 people were wounded by flying glass.
Four Fatah al-Islam members were charged with bombings in the capital earlier this year, but it was not immediately clear if there was any link between Sunday’s explosion and the fighting in the north.
Security sources said at least 15 militants were killed when troops stormed buildings in Tripoli, where some of them were holed up.
Palestinian officials in the camp, home to 40,000 refugees, said at least 10 civilians were killed and 50 wounded. Lebanese officials could not say whether militants inside the camp had been killed.
The army blasted militant positions in the camp with tank, mortar and machinegun fire, a military source said.
The International Committee of the Red Cross appealed for access to the camp. “We haven’t been able (to go in), because of the heavy fighting. We don’t know how many wounded there are inside,” spokeswoman Virginia Dela Guardia told Reuters.
Fatah al-Islam, a Sunni group, said the army had launched an unprovoked attack.
“We warn the Lebanese army of the consequences of continuing the provocative acts against our mujahideen who will open the gates of fire ... against (the army) and against the whole of Lebanon,” it said in a statement faxed to Reuters. The authenticity of the statement could not be verified.
The army had tightened its grip around Nahr al-Bared after four Fatah al-Islam members, all Syrian nationals, were charged with planting bombs on two buses in a Christian area near Beirut in February. Three civilians were killed in those attacks.
Fatah al-Islam is known to have Lebanese, Syrians and Palestinians in its ranks. Its leader is a Palestinian.
Cabinet minister Ahmad Fatfat, speaking in Tripoli, said the violence was part of efforts to sabotage U.N. moves to set up the international tribunal to try suspects in the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri.
A U.N. inquiry has implicated Syria and Lebanese officials in the Hariri killing. Damascus denies any involvement.
Syria also denies any link to Fatah al-Islam, whose leader, Shaker al-Abssi, says the group has no organizational links to al Qaeda but agrees with its aim of fighting “infidels”.
Syria said it had closed two border crossings to north Lebanon due the violence. The main crossing remained open.
Fatfat told Lebanon’s pro-government Future TV: “There is someone trying to create security chaos to say to world public opinion: ‘Look, if the tribunal is established, there will be security trouble in Lebanon’.”
The United States, France and Britain last week circulated a draft U.N. resolution that would unilaterally set up the court, which is at the heart of a political crisis in Lebanon.
The army said the clashes began when Fatah al-Islam attacked army posts around the camp and in northern Tripoli. It sent reinforcements to the outskirts of Nahr al-Bared, but did not push inside, in line with a 1969 Arab agreement which bars Lebanese security forces from Palestinian camps.
Television footage of a Tripoli building stormed by the army showed corpses, some charred, on a floor strewn with rubble.
Security forces had also been trying to arrest Fatah al-Islam members suspected of robbing a bank on Saturday, security sources said. A group of them had been detained.
Fatah al-Islam was formed last year by fighters who broke off from the Syrian-backed Fatah Uprising group.
Additional reporting by Beirut bureau