Beirut wants Palestinian bases out

Lebanon is nervous about armed pro-Syrian outposts as tensions rise with Syria.

Abu al-Abed may soon have to pack his bags and vacate the outpost manned by Palestinian militants for more than 30 years in the hill country along Lebanon's frontier with Syria.

His tiny encampment of two wooden huts and a water tank is one of several in the area manned by the pro-Syrian Fatah Intifada faction. The camps, which were protected by Syria, have become a source of growing tension between Lebanon's government and the country's pro-Syrian Palestinian factions.

Many Lebanese blame the Palestinians for triggering Lebanon's 16-year civil war and are nervous that armed Palestinian groups continue to man about a dozen outposts at a time of tension between Beirut and Damascus.

Earlier this month, Lebanese and Palestinian officials agreed to form a committee to discuss the fate of the military camps. Beirut demands that the bases close and the Palestinian fighters return to refugee camps concentrated around Lebanon's coastal cities and towns.

Tuesday, Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora met with his Palestinian counterpart Mahmoud Abbas in Paris to debate the fate of Palestinian arms in Lebanon, a discussion that only became possible following Syria's disengagement from its neighbor in April.

"We expressed our views that the presence of armed personnel and armaments outside the camps is not necessary and not helpful," Mr. Siniora said. "As for the presence of armed personnel within the camps, this is going to be looked at in order to organize it."

Mr. Abbas said Palestinians should remember that they are guests in Lebanon and are not above the law. The two leaders discussed the possibility of opening a Palestinian embassy in Beirut and improving conditions in the 12 established refugee camps, home to some 350,000 Palestinians.

Lebanon has been struck by a series of assassinations and bombings in recent months, for which most Lebanese blame Syria. Reports of weapons being smuggled in from Syria by Palestinian militants have reinforced fears of further violence if a potentially explosive UN report, expected Friday, blames Damascus for the assassination of former premier Rafik Hariri.

Although Lebanese troops have fanned out along the mountainous frontier to thwart smugglers and keep a close eye on the bases, Abu al-Abed insists that the Palestinians will not cause problems. "We are for the security and stability of Lebanon and our weapons will only be turned against Lebanon's enemies," he says.

Still, the reports of weapon-smuggling appears to be exaggerated. The Lebanese Army says that it has caught smuggled commercial goods, but no weapons. And there was little to suggest that the Fatah Intifada cadres in their hillside outposts are gearing up for a conflict.

Each camp is manned by a handful of aging Palestinian fighters dressed in an eclectic mix of fatigues with tracksuits, sweaters, and sandals. The grizzled veterans of the Palestinian revolution have little to do except while away time reminiscing about past glories.

UN Security Council Resolution 1559, adopted a year ago, includes demands for the dismantling of all "Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias," a reference to the Hizbullah organization and armed Palestinian groups. While attention has focused on the fate of Hizbullah's military wing, a UN progress report due Wednesday on the implementation of Resolution 1559 was expected to concentrate on Palestinian weapons, seen as a less intractable problem than Hizbullah's armed status.

Many Lebanese support Hizbullah retaining its weapons for the time being, but there is a broad consensus demanding pro-Syrian Palestinian groups dismantle their bases and return to the refugee camps. "If they [the Palestinians] want to launch a jihad, they should do that from Palestine, not from Lebanon," wrote Jibran Tueni, general manager of Lebanon's An-Nahar newspaper.

The graying warriors of Fatah Intifada may pose little threat, but the same is not necessarily true of the larger and better organized Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command. Headed by a Syrian Army officer, the PFLP-GC is headquartered in Damascus and works closely with Hizbullah.

In the village of Qussaya in the eastern Bekaa Valley, residents insist that a sprawling mountaintop PFLP-GC base by the border has grown in recent weeks.

"There used to be about 10 Palestinians up there, now there's probably more than 100," says a resident of this Christian village who requested anonymity for fear of reprisals. He claims to have seen large quantities of weapons, including antiaircraft guns, artillery, and rockets stashed away in camouflaged dugouts.

A grim-faced PFLP-GC fighter sporting a thick beard, a rifle, and a Syrian special-forces uniform stands sentry at the entrance of a small base on the northern edge of Qussaya.

Abu al-Kheir, a short dapper PFLP-GC officer dressed in an olive uniform, grins and acknowledges that weapons, people, and goods are smuggled across the border into Lebanon, "but not by us."

"We have all the weapons we need," he says. "We keep our weapons for a cause and respect Lebanese law. Our rifles are pointed in one direction only, and that's against Israel."

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