Lebanese troops battled Al-Qaida-linked militants based in a Palestinian refugee camp Sunday and 38 people were killed in Lebanon's bloodiest internal fighting since the 1975-90 civil war.
Thirteen soldiers and 19 militants died in the clashes, which erupted before dawn at the Nahr al-Bared camp and spread into the nearby Sunni Muslim city of Tripoli in north Lebanon.
A Cabinet minister said the fighting with Fatah al-Islam, which the government says is backed by Syria, seemed timed to try to derail UN moves to set up an international court to try those suspected of carrying out political killings in Lebanon.
The soldiers were killed at Nahr al-Bared just north of Tripoli, Lebanon's second largest city, and in an attack on an army patrol in al-Qalamoun to the south, a security source said.
Security sources said 15 militants were killed in Tripoli, where the army had re-established control, and four in the camp, home to 40,000 refugees. Medical sources in the camp said six civilians, including two children, were killed and 60 wounded.
The army was blasting militant positions in the camp with tank, mortar and machinegun fire, a military source said. More than 27 soldiers were wounded overall, the source added.
Fatah al-Islam, a Sunni group, said the army had launched an unprovoked attack.
"We warn the Lebanese army of the consequences of continuing the provocative acts against our mujahideen who will open the gates of fire ... against (the army) and against the whole of Lebanon," it said in a statement. The authenticity of the statement could not be verified.
The army had tightened its grip around Nahr al-Bared after four Fatah al-Islam members, all Syrian nationals, were charged with planting bombs on two buses in a Christian area near Beirut in February. Three civilians were killed in those attacks.
Fatah al-Islam is known to have Lebanese, Syrian and Palestinians in its ranks. Its leader is a Palestinian.
Cabinet minister Ahmad Fatfat, speaking in Tripoli, said the violence was part of efforts to sabotage UN moves to set up the international tribunal to try suspects in the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri.
A UN inquiry has implicated Syria and Lebanese officials in the Hariri killing. Damascus denies any involvement.
Syria also denies any link to Fatah al-Islam, whose leader, Shaker al-Abssi, says the group has no organizational links to Al-Qaida but agrees with its aim of fighting "infidels".
(China Daily via agencies May 21, 2007)