NAHR AL-BARED, Lebanon (Reuters) - The United States and Arab allies sent military aid to Lebanon on Friday and the Lebanese army deployed extra troops to a Palestinian camp where it has been battling Islamist militants this week.
A fragile truce held between the army and the Fatah al-Islam militant group in northern Lebanon at the Nahr al-Bared camp, where the faction is based, despite sporadic overnight clashes.
Lebanese Defence Minister Elias al-Murr said the government was leaving room for negotiations but the army would act if necessary. “What is required is the handing over of those terrorists and criminals,” he told reporters.
Murr gave no details on the talks, but a delegation from the main Palestinian factions has been holding extensive meetings with Lebanese leaders in a bid to end the crisis.
At least 33 soldiers and 25 militants have been killed in what is the worst internal violence since the 1975-1990 civil war. Thousands have fled the camp, where Palestinian sources say at least 11 civilians have been killed and 100 wounded.
A group describing itself as al Qaeda’s wing in the Levant vowed bombings in Lebanon and attacks on Christians unless Beirut pulled the army away from Nahr al-Bared.
“No crusader will be safe in Lebanon after today. As you hit you will be hit,” said a speaker identified as the military leader of the group in a Web recording.
Three bombs have hit the Beirut area this week, killing one woman and wounding about 20 people.
At least six U.S. and Arab military supply planes arrived at Beirut airport carrying ammunition and other light equipment from U.S. depots in the region and from Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, security sources said.
“The United States has existing agreements to provide (military) assistance to Lebanon. Under those agreements we are expediting the delivery of supplies,” said Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for the White House National Security Council, acknowledging that some shipments had arrived.
UNRWA, the U.N. agency which cares for Palestinian refugees, said around 15,000 people were still in the camp, home to some 40,000 before it came under heavy army shelling this week.
Thousands who fled the fighting are sheltering in a nearby refugee camp where relief workers are delivering aid.
“The humanitarian situation in Nahr al-Bared is deteriorating,” UNRWA spokeswoman Hoda Elturk said. “We have our trucks full of food and water ready,” she said, but added: “It’s not secure enough for our staff to enter.”
An 11-truck aid convoy for the International Committee of the Red Cross arrived in Beirut from Amman, an ICRC spokesman in Geneva said. “All the goods are destined for people in the north and to restock our stocks in Beirut,” Vincent Lusser said.
Extra Lebanese soldiers arrived overnight at the camp, which the army is not allowed to enter under a 1969 Arab agreement, witnesses said. The 40,000-strong army is already stretched with significant deployments along the border with Israel in south Lebanon, Syria to the north and east and in and around Beirut.
Beirut requested more U.S. military aid after fighting erupted on Sunday. Washington voiced support for the government, calling Fatah al-Islam “a brutal group of violent extremists”.
Arab states, many of which have fought their own battles with Sunni Islamist militants, have also pledged military aid.
Lebanese leaders have vowed to stamp out the group, which is led by a Palestinian but has little support among Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee community of around 400,000.
Lebanon’s defense ministry estimates between 50 and 60 militants have been killed in the fighting, which the army says started after Fatah al-Islam launched unprovoked attacks on soldiers. The militants say they acted in self-defense.
Fatah al-Islam is inspired by the Sunni 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 Nadim Ladki and Tom Perry in Beirut and Reuters bureaus in Geneva and Washington