NAHR AL-BARED, Lebanon (Reuters) - Clashes intensified on Friday between the Lebanese army and Islamist fighters who had retreated into the heart of a Palestinian refugee camp after troops captured all their outlying positions.
The clashes followed a day of uneasy calm that settled over the heavily-damaged Nahr al-Bared camp after the Lebanese army claimed victory in 33 days of fierce fighting against the al Qaeda-inspired Fatah al-Islam in which 172 people were killed.
Lebanese army Gazelle helicopter gunships fired machineguns at the camp and four shells hit the area in the afternoon amid scattered gunfire. Fatah al-Islam militants responded with assault rifles and machinegun fire.
The battle for Nahr al-Bared in north Lebanon was the country’s worst internal violence since the 1975-90 civil war.
Palestinian mediators entered the camp, which once housed about 40,000 people, and held two hours of talks with Fatah al-Islam’s senior official Shahine Shahine.
“The atmosphere is very positive,” Sheikh Daoud Mustapha, head of the League of Palestinian Scholars, told Reuters after the talks. But he was visibly shaken by the extent of the destruction.
“I had not wished to see the camp in this state. To see it is different from hearing about it, there isn’t a house that is not damaged or destroyed,” he said.
Mustapha earlier said that displaced refugees would not return before there was a permanent ceasefire and guarantees for their safety.
Defence Minister Elias al-Murr declared on Thursday that Fatah al-Islam had been defeated and many of its leaders 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 surrendered. Security forces are barred from entering Lebanon’s 12 Palestinian refugee camps by a 1969 Arab agreement.
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.
The army said in a statement it had taken control of all 13 positions of Fatah al-Islam, including its headquarters, command and control centre and training grounds. It was destroying tunnels and hunting militants who had fled inside the camp.
Smoke curled from shell-shattered buildings. Soldiers set off explosions as they cleared booby traps and mines.
Analysts said the Lebanese army’s victory would not wipe out the al Qaeda-inspired jihadis. Fatah al-Islam has Lebanese as well as Palestinians, Syrians and Saudis in its ranks. Its forces, some of them hardened by combat in Iraq, had contested every inch of the army’s advance.
“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 chanted slogans at a U.N. school at Beddawi demanding to be let back into Nahr al-Bared. “We want a fast return, not a fast meal,” one sign said.
Palestinian mediators met Saudi diplomats 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 had acted in self-defence.
Murr said some of the fighters belonged to al Qaeda. Fatah al-Islam’s Abssi has said the group has no organizational ties to Osama bin Laden’s network but shares its militant ideology.
Additional reporting by Nazih Siddiq and Alistair Lyon