AIN AL-HILWEH, Lebanon (Reuters) - Islamist gunmen killed two Lebanese soldiers at a Palestinian refugee camp in south Lebanon on Monday, the first fatal spillover from fighting between the army and al Qaeda-inspired fighters in the north.
Two militants of the Jund al-Sham group were also killed in the clash on the edge of the big Ain al-Hilweh camp near the southern port city of Sidon, security and military sources said. Three soldiers and two civilians were wounded in the clashes.
A Palestinian political source said the spread of fighting to the south had forced leaders to begin contacts to seek a mediated settlement of the clashes between the army and militants at Nahr al-Bared camp in north Lebanon.
“What happened at Ain al-Hilweh gave a very dangerous indication of where things will go if Nahr al-Bared battles continue,” said the source.
The army has been battling Sunni Islamist militants of the Fatah al-Islam group in the north since May 20. At least 114 people have been killed in the fighting — Lebanon’s worst internal violence since the 1975-1990 civil war.
The violence has further jolted stability in Lebanon, where a political standoff between the Western-backed government and Syria’s Lebanese allies has paralyzed state institutions since last year’s war between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas.
A bomb targeted an empty bus in a Christian area in east Beirut, wounding seven people. It was the fourth bomb in and around the capital in less than three weeks. The government says Fatah al-Islam members have confessed to blowing up two buses in February in another Christian area, killing three people.
A Lebanese political source said military action against the group might slacken at Nahr al-Bared. “It has become clear that it won’t be easy to finish the Nahr al-Bared situation quickly through military means,” said the source.
But Information Minister Ghazi Aridi said military action would not halt until Fatah al-Islam surrendered. He said the group had suffered a “major blow” with death of several leaders and large number of militants.
The fighting has stretched Lebanon’s army, prompting the Beirut government to turn to Washington for military supplies.
U.S. National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, traveling with President George W. Bush to a G8 summit in Germany, said further U.S. assistance was en route.
“There are some additional items that are already under consideration that we are talking about with the Lebanese armed forces,” he told reporters.
Hundreds of civilians fled Ain al-Hilweh, a sprawling shanty town perched on a hillside above Sidon, 40 km (25 miles) south of Beirut. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah faction dominates the camp, but small Islamist groups have a foothold there and in several other refugee camps in Lebanon.
Palestinian factions held emergency talks with the army command in Sidon to ease tension. Jund al-Sham fighters then ceded their positions to gunmen from other Islamist groups.
Some 500 Palestinian and Lebanese civilians who had fled the fighting took refuge at the municipality compound in Sidon.
“We fear what happened at Nahr al-Bared will happen here,” said Hani Bernawi, 31. “They (Jund al-Sham) are just a gang who came here to mess things up and destroy our security.”
Jund al-Sham, made up of a few dozen Palestinian and Lebanese militants, has sided with Fatah al-Islam. Its fighters attacked the army just hours after a Fatah al-Islam commander named Abu Riyadh, who had previously belonged to Jund al-Sham, was killed in Nahr al-Bared.
Machinegun fire and explosions echoed sporadically from Nahr al-Bared. But the fighting was less intense than in the previous three days of army assaults on militant positions. About 27,000 of the camp’s 40,000 residents have fled.
Additional reporting by Nazih Siddiq in Nahr al-Bared, Nadim Ladki in Beirut