Battles engulfed a Palestinian refugee camp in north Lebanon Monday and the death toll from two days of fighting between the Lebanese army and Al-Qaida-inspired militants climbed to 71.
Thick black smoke billowed from the Nahr al-Bared camp, home to 40,000 Palestinians, as tanks shelled positions held by Fatah al-Islam fighters hitting back with machinegun and grenade fire.
Fighting subsided in the afternoon amid efforts to allow an aid convoy into the coastal camp in north Lebanon, but clashes resumed before the UN and Red Cross vehicles could move in.
Abu Salim, a spokesman for Fatah al-Islam, blamed the army for the flare-up and threatened to ignite violence elsewhere. "If the situation stays like this we will not be silent and will definitely move the battle outside (the nearby city) of Tripoli," he said by telephone.
He said the group had lost five dead and nine wounded inside the camp since fighting erupted early on Sunday. Palestinian sources in Nahr al-Bared said the bombardment Monday had killed nine civilians and wounded 20.
The conflict is Lebanon's worst internal violence since the 1975-90 civil war. Sunday's battles in Nahr al-Bared and Tripoli killed 27 soldiers, 15 militants and 15 civilians. A military source said the army suffered no casualties Monday.
Fatah al-Islam, a Sunni Muslim group which emerged late last year, has only a few hundred fighters and scant political support in Lebanon. Based in Nahr al-Bared, it is thought to have links with jihadist factions in other Palestinian camps.
The violence showed how fragile security remains in Lebanon, racked by political and sectarian tensions since last year's Israeli-Hezbollah war in the south and by a series of unsolved assassinations before and after Syria's 2005 troop pullout.
The Cabinet, itself embroiled in a long-running political crisis, was to discuss the fighting later Monday.
Palestine Liberation Organization representative Abbas Zaki said after talks with Prime Minister Fouad Siniora that the camps housing 400,000 refugees, a legacy of the Arab-Israeli war of 1948, should not be "the spark that starts a civil war".
Lebanese government ministers say Fatah al-Islam is a tool used by Syria to stir instability in an effort to derail UN moves to set up an international court to try suspects in the 2005 killing of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moualem reiterated that his country opposed Fatah al-Islam and wanted to arrest its leaders.
"Our forces have been after them, even through Interpol," he said in a lecture at Damascus University. "We reject this organization. It does not serve the Palestinian cause and it is not after liberating Palestine."
Under a 1969 Arab accord, Lebanon's army may not enter the refugee camps, leaving a security vacuum filled by Palestinian factions. They have not obeyed a 2004 UN Security Council resolution calling for all militias in Lebanon to be disarmed.
Hezbollah, Lebanon's biggest armed group, whose Shi'ite fighters are backed by Iran and Syria, also rejects that demand.
(China Daily via agencies May 22, 2007)