NAHR AL-BARED, Lebanon (Reuters) - The United States sent more ammunition on Saturday to Lebanon, whose army is struggling to defeat a group of heavily armed Islamist militants holed up inside a Palestinian refugee camp.
The militant Fatah al-Islam group, which has vowed to fight to the death, said in a statement the U.S. military supplies included nerve gas and cluster bombs.
“If they use unconventional weapons against us, we will respond with unconventional attacks everywhere,” said the statement, read by the group’s spokesman Abu Salim Taha.
A Lebanese military spokesman said he had no reaction to “these false allegations which are not worth commenting on”.
Later, the leader of Fatah al-Islam issued a new threat in a videotaped message carried on Al Jazeera television. The group would fight “the Jews, the Americans and their loyalists”, said Shaker al-Abssi, referring to Lebanese leaders.
Shortly later, clashes erupted between Lebanese soldiers and militants around Nahr al-Bared refugee camp. The clashes with heavy machineguns, grenades, mortars and artillery continued sporadically throughout the night.
Lebanese leaders have vowed to stamp out Fatah al-Islam, which is led by a Palestinian but has little support among Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee community of around 400,000.
Officials said they were giving mediators a chance to persuade the militants to surrender before ordering the army to move into the camp. The Lebanese army is banned from entering Lebanon’s 12 refugee camps under a 1969 Arab agreement.
Three U.S. Air Force cargo planes had earlier landed at Beirut’s airport and unloaded ammunition and other equipment for the army, airport sources said. Six planes carrying similar military aid from the U.S. and Arab allies arrived on Friday.
The shipments, promised months ago but rushed after fighting erupted between the army and Fatah al-Islam on May 20, arrived as Lebanese soldiers beefed up their positions around Nahr al-Bared, the militants’ main base.
Security forces searched buildings and houses in the nearby port city of Tripoli and other villages in search of militants who may have slipped through the cordon, security sources said.
A fragile truce between the combatants has held since Tuesday despite sporadic clashes. The fighting, the worst internal violence since the 1975-1990 civil war, has killed at least 78 people — 33 soldiers, 27 militants and 18 civilians.
Thousands who fled the fighting are sheltering in a nearby refugee camp and other areas. Around 150 refugees, mostly women and children, left Nahr al-Bared camp on Saturday.
“The situation inside is tragic. There is large-scale destruction. Our homes are in ruins,” Abdel A’al, a refugee, told Reuters as he left the camp, home to around 40,000 people before the conflict.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said it delivered three truckloads of food, water and candles to Nahr al-Bared where at least 10,000 refugees remain.
The ICRC also delivered 30 tonnes of food to 12,000 displaced refugees who moved to a nearby camp. A 12-truck convoy from the United Arab Emirates also began distributing aid.
Hezbollah chief Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said on Friday that storming Nahr al-Bared would mark a ‘red line’ and would plunge the country into an uncontrollable cycle of violence.
Shi’ite Hezbollah is the country’s most powerful group but is at odds with the country’s anti-Syrian ruling majority.
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 Ayat Basma in Beirut