BEIRUT (Reuters) - Lebanese leaders vowed on Thursday to stamp out an Islamist militant group that has been fighting the army at a camp in the north of the country.
Relief workers planned aid deliveries to thousands of Palestinians forced from a refugee camp by fighting between the army and militant group Fatah al-Islam as a fragile truce held.
“We will not surrender to terrorism,” Prime Minister Fouad Siniora said in a televised speech to his nation, referring to Fatah al-Islam and three bomb attacks in Lebanon this week.
“We will work on uprooting terrorism and finishing it off.”
Hours after Siniora spoke, Lebanese soldiers and militants exchanged heavy machinegun fire and shells at the entrances of the camp in the worst violation of the two-day-old truce, witnesses said. Just like the clashes began, they ended suddenly after 30 minutes.
It was not immediately clear what triggered the exchanges.
Dozens have been killed in recent days in Lebanon’s worst internal violence since the 1975-1990 civil war.
Heavy army shelling of the camp has drawn criticism from rights group Amnesty International and stirred anger among Lebanon’s Palestinian community of nearly 400,000. An Arab agreement stops the army from entering refugee camps in Lebanon.
Siniora sought to assure Palestinians that his government was not targeting civilians. “There will not be strife or any feud between the Lebanese and the Palestinians,” he said.
He said Fatah al-Islam, which is led by a Palestinian, is a “terrorist organization that claims to be Islamic and to defend Palestine” and was “trying to ride on the suffering of the Palestinian people and their struggle”.
At least 25 militants and 32 soldiers have been killed in the clashes — Lebanon’s worst internal violence since the 1975-1990 civil war, security sources say. Lebanon says between 50 and 60 militants have been killed.
Palestinian sources say at least 11 civilians have been killed and 100 wounded in the camp. But Palestinians who have fled since the truce took hold on Tuesday put the civilian death toll in the dozens.
Beirut has also been rocked by two bombs this week and a third struck east of the capital on Wednesday night. One person was killed in the blasts.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, on his first trip outside Europe in his new job, held talks with Lebanese officials in Beirut, expressing France’s strong support to the Lebanese government after a meeting with Siniora.
Palestinians were still trickling out of Nahr al-Bared camp on Thursday. Thousands have taken shelter in the nearby Beddawi refugee camp and the northern port city of Tripoli.
Jamila Ahmad, 35, said she had been sheltering in a room with 20 people during fierce fighting earlier in the week.
“A shell hit next to our house and the debris fell all over us,” Ahmad said as she left the camp with her five children.
UNRWA, the U.N. agency which cares for Palestinian refugees, said around 12,000 people had left the camp since the lull in fighting on Tuesday. “There are still many people in the camp — around 18,000,” UNRWA spokeswoman Hoda Elturk said.
“Circulating in the camp is not very safe, although the ceasefire holds so far.”
Fatah al-Islam has little support among Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee community.
The faction is inspired by the Sunni Islamist 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.
Additional reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis, Tom Perry and Yara Bayoumy at Nahr al-Bared