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Truce lets Palestinians flee Lebanon camp

NAHR AL-BARED, Lebanon (Reuters) - Thousands of Palestinians fled a battered refugee camp in north Lebanon on Tuesday when a fragile truce eased three days of fierce battles between Lebanese army troops and Islamist militants.

Flying white flags from their car windows, up to 10 people crammed into some vehicles as they fled Nahr al-Bared camp. But the truce was interrupted by sporadic gunfire and residents begged visiting reporters to evacuate them.

Two people lay in pools of blood in the street. It was unclear if they were dead or wounded. A man trying to carry a wounded woman to safety left her in the street when bullets began flying.

Aid groups used the periods of calm to deliver essential supplies to the camp. But some U.N. aid trucks withdrew when shells exploded near their convoy, killing at least two youths as they tried to collect bread, witnesses said.

At least 22 militants, 32 soldiers and 27 civilians have been killed since the army and the militant Islamist group Fatah al-Islam began fighting on Sunday, making it Lebanon’s worst internal violence since the 1975-1990 civil war.

Residents said bodies were buried under the rubble of buildings. There were several conflicting and unconfirmed reports of the civilian death toll in the camp. Fifty-five soldiers have also been wounded.

Heavy fighting at Nahr al-Bared camp, home to 40,000 people near the northern city of Tripoli, raged from dawn until afternoon. Fatah al-Islam, an al Qaeda-inspired Sunni Muslim group has been based in the camp since last year.

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Clashes died down after the group said it would cease fire if the army did the same. The fighting prompted Palestinians in other refugee camps to protest against the army and government.

Shocked camp residents emerged from their homes to see the destruction. Shell fire had torn huge holes in buildings. Gunmen roamed the rubble-strewn street.

“What the hell were they (the army) doing? Did they think they were fighting the Israeli army?” resident Mahmoud Tayyar asked.

Fatah al-Islam has little local support, but the firepower the army has turned on the camp has begun to anger Palestinians.

“We have seen many wars but never seen bombardment in this way. Entire areas have been destroyed,” Jamal Laila, 40, said by earlier. “Children have no milk, water or bread.

“For the sake of 10, 20 or 30 individuals an entire camp is being massacred,” he said, weeping over the phone.

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U.N. aid trucks had waited for hours to enter the camp, on the Mediterranean coast just outside Tripoli, Lebanon’s second biggest city.

A Fatah al-Islam militant blew himself up in a building in Tripoli, a security source said. There were no other casualties.

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Prime Minister Fouad Siniora’s government has said it wants to root out Fatah al-Islam, which it sees as a tool of Syria -- something denied by Damascus and the group itself.

Lebanese authorities have charged members of Fatah al-Islam with twin bus bombings in February. Beirut was rocked on Sunday and Monday by bombs in commercial areas which killed one woman.

Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, a fierce opponent of Syrian influence in Lebanon, said more such attacks were likely. He accused Syria of exporting Fatah al-Islam to Lebanon.

France condemned the “cowardly” bombings in Beirut and urged the Lebanese people to unite behind their authorities.

Linking the attacks with U.N. moves to set up a tribunal to try suspects in political assassinations in Lebanon, a French Foreign Ministry spokesman said the international community was “determined not to let itself be intimidated”.

The White House accused the militants of trying to derail U.N. moves to form the tribunal to try suspects in killings and other attacks in Lebanon, but stopped short of blaming Syria.

The U.S. State Department said the Beirut government had requested more military assistance. Washington was considering the request, a State Department spokesman said. Arab governments promised military assistance to Beirut at a special meeting.

Additional reporting by Yara Bayoumy, Tom Perry and Laila Bassam in Beirut