Monday, May 28, 2007

No end in sight for Lebanon refugee camp siege

The siege in Northern Lebanon at the Nahr el-Bared Palestinian refugee camp has now moved into its second week with no signs of a settlement. The Lebanese government have demanded the surrender of Islamic militants inside the camp but are reluctant to rush into an all-out assault. Inside the camp the leader of the Fatah Islam militants, Shaker Youssef al-Absi, vowed his fighters would not surrender. "We wish to die for the sake of God," he said in a video released to Al-Jazeera on the weekend. "Sunni people are the spearhead against the Zionist Americans."

Palestinian negotiators have put together a four point plan to end the crisis. The plan calls for a permanent cease-fire, the creation of a Palestinian security force to maintain law and order in the camp, the barring of other armed groups in the camp and the creation of "a mechanism for the departure" of Fatah Islam from the camp. But this mechanism for the departure refuses to countenance the arrest of Fatah Islam leaders and that remains the biggest stumbling block to the Government agreeing to end the siege. Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Saniora described the assault on the army as a crime against national stability and the Lebanese military has demanded al-Absi’s fighters be handed over for prosecution for attacking government troops last week.

The trouble started last weekend after Lebanese soldiers conducted raids in the city of Tripoli. The trouble then spilled over to the nearby Nahr al-Bared refugee camp. The Lebanese Army then laid siege to the camp trapping Fatah al-Islam militants in the process. At least 22 soldiers and 17 fighters were killed in the battle in the city and the camp. The army has threatened to storm the camp if the group fails to surrender. Al Jazeera reported that the army shelled the camp for the first three days of the siege. Walid Abdullah, a nurse inside the camp, said bodies were piling up in the streets and that there was a threat of disease. "Many dead bodies are lying on the streets," he said. "They are bloated and smelling and there is a threat of epidemics."

The Lebanese Opposition group Hezbollah has warned the government of dire consequences if they launch an assault on the camp. The camp leader, Shaker Youssef al-Absi is a Palestinian who has said he is inspired by Osama bin Laden. He has also has been linked to Al Qaeda factions in Iraq. Al-Absi was born in the West Bank town of Jericho in 1955 and fled with his family to Jordan after the 1967 Six Day War. He lived in a refugee camp for five years before joining Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement. He fled to Tunisia in 1970 due to tensions between the PLO and Jordan. From there he went to Libya where he trained in Gaddafy’s air force.

In more recent times Al-Absi fought in the campaign of Afghanistan and Iraq. He was sentenced to death in absentia in 2004 by a Jordanian military court for his involvement in an assassination plot of US American diplomat Laurence Foley in Jordan. At the time Al-Absi was in prison in Syria on terrorist charges. He was released last year and made his way to Lebanon. Al-Absi now leads several thousand Palestinian refugees at Nahr al-Bared. The camp initially held 31,000 displaced Palestinians but 25,000 of them manage to flee the camp after the army shelling. Most of the escapees are now crowded at Hoda al-Turk camp in nearby Beddawi, about 5km north of Tripoli.

Al-Absi’s organisation Fatah al-Islam is a new addition to the covoluted political landscape in Lebanon. Lebanese security officials said the organisation began in the camp and has 100 members who come from various Arab countries including Saudi Arabia and Syria. They have been joined by local sympathizers. The group has quickly expanded to the nearby city of Tripoli. Tripoli is a predominantly Sunni city but does have a contingent of Islamic fundamentalists. A Fatah spokesman told Lebanese TV it belongs to the conservative Salafi branch of Islam and its aim was to liberate the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. "We are a Jihadi movement, and we have hoisted the banner of Islam,” he said.

Journalists have been prevented from entering the camp since last Monday. The army barred photographs of troops, artillery and military targets. Journalists were also forced out of a nearby high-rise building that had been used as a location for reporting the crisis. The Lebanese Army has not publicly explained the restriction, although some officials initially said it was imposed for safety reasons. Some journalists suspect the more likely reason was the army was attempting to hinder coverage of the humanitarian crisis inside the camp. On Thursday three journalists from Agence France-Presse, Al-Akhbar and Al-Alam were beaten by Lebanese army members after straying too close to the camp.

With 12 camps in Lebanon containing 400,000 mostly desperate Palestinian refugees, they remain a hotbed for political agitation and a time bomb ready to explode. Abu Imad Rifai, a representative of the Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad, told AP on the weekend, "The repercussions of a military solution are much more serious than a political solution," It was a blunt warning that a military assault on Nahr el-Bared would trigger further violence in the other 11 camps.

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