NAHR AL-BARED, Lebanon (Reuters) - Al Qaeda-inspired militants in north Lebanon threatened on Wednesday to take their fight to other parts of the country and beyond if the Lebanese army did not stop attacking a Palestinian refugee camp.
“If the army continues to bomb civilians and pursue its inhumane practices ... we will move within the next two days to the second phase of the battle,” Fatah al-Islam military commander Shahin Shahin told Reuters by telephone from the camp.
“We will show them the capabilities of Fatah al-Islam, starting with Lebanon and then moving to the whole of Greater Syria,” he said, using a term intended to include what is now Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories.
Lebanese troops fired artillery and tank shells overnight and in the morning at Fatah al-Islam militants holed up in the coastal Nahr al-Bared camp, the 18th day of battles there.
At least 114 people, including 46 soldiers and 38 militants, have been killed since fighting erupted on May 20. The army says the militants started the conflict and demands their surrender.
The battles are Lebanon’s deadliest internal conflict since the 1975-1990 civil war.
Speaking from inside the camp, an official from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine told Reuters 700 homes had been destroyed since the fighting began.
In south Lebanon, a 40-member force from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah group and three Islamist factions deployed at the northern entrance of Ain al-Hilweh camp, scene of deadly clashes this week between the army and the militant Jund al-Sham group, which has links to Fatah al-Islam.
The Ain al-Hilweh fighting, in which two soldiers and two militants died, raised concern that the conflict in the north could spill over to refugee camps elsewhere in the country.
Lebanon is home to 400,000 Palestinian refugees in 12 camps.
The Lebanese government has said Fatah al-Islam ordered Jund al-Sham to start the fighting in the south.
Palestinian factions, including Fatah and the Islamist Hamas group, oppose Fatah al-Islam, which shares al Qaeda’s ideology of global jihad and recruits fighters from other Arab countries.
In eastern Lebanon, security forces arrested three suspected al Qaeda members in possession of weapons and explosives, forged travel and identity documents, computers, maps of Lebanese cities and night-vision binoculars, security sources said.
Fatah al-Islam made its base in Nahr al-Bared where it could function beyond the reach of the army, which is not allowed into Palestinian camps in Lebanon under a 1969 Arab agreement.
About 27,000 of Nahr al-Bared’s 40,000 refugees have fled. The United Nations has launched an appeal for $12.7 million to meet the urgent needs of the displaced.
The United States, which sent ammunition and other equipment to the army, said it would donate $3.5 million to the appeal.
The violence is the latest jolt to stability in Lebanon. Four bombs have exploded in the Beirut area, killing one person and wounding dozens, since the Nahr al-Bared fighting began.
A small bomb was found near a beach resort popular with U.N. peacekeepers in south Lebanon on Wednesday morning, security sources said. They said the 2 kg (4.4 pound) charge had been timed to go off at 6 a.m. (0300 GMT) but failed to detonate.
Fatah al-Islam last week accused the 13,000-strong U.N. force, which has a naval component, of shelling Nahr al-Bared from the sea, a charge denied by the peacekeepers.