In fight against militants, Lebanon bolstered by US, Gulf countries
The Lebanese army, carrying out a major offensive against Fatah al-Islam, has little combat experience and outdated equipment.
NAHR AL-BARED CAMP, north Lebanon
Ill-equipped, overstretched, and largely untested, the Lebanese Army faces a formidable challenge as it presses ahead with an air, sea, and land assault against a band of several hundred militants besieged in this Palestinian refugee camp.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Amid the worst internal violence since Lebanon's 16-year civil war ended in 1990, the Lebanese Army on Friday launched a major offensive against the militants to crush them once and for all.
But the troops face an enemy whose leaders have sworn to fight to the death. The battle represents the first big test for the Lebanese Army since Syria withdrew its forces from Lebanon two years ago.
"The Lebanese Army was accused of doing nothing during last summer's war [between Hizbullah and Israel], and they can't afford to be accused of the same thing again. I think that's very much at the back of their mind," says Timur Goksel, a Beirut-based consultant on Middle East security affairs who was a longtime United Nations peacekeeper in south Lebanon.
Military diplomats in Beirut say the special forces are highly motivated and take training seriously. But unlike many of the militants, who have fought American troops in Iraq, the Lebanese have had little combat experience.
To help the Lebanese government crush the militants, the US – which has increased its military aid to Lebanon sevenfold in the last year – and some Gulf countries last week flew in planeloads of equipment, thought to include additional ammunition, night-vision goggles, and antitank missiles.
Prime minister calls for surrender
The fighting began two weeks ago when Fatah al-Islam militants attacked and overran Army positions surrounding the Nahr al-Bared camp. At least 10 soldiers were killed, some of them decapitated.
Troop reinforcements were rushed to the camp and the Army positions were quickly retaken. An intermittent cease-fire in the following days allowed two-thirds of the camp's population of around 40,000 to flee. UN workers responsible for the Palestinians' welfare estimate that some 5,000 to 8,000 refugees remain.
On Saturday, Prime Minister Fouad Siniora warned the militants to surrender or be killed, calling them a "terrorist gang." He said that any militant who surrenders would receive a fair trial.
But Abu Hurreira, a Lebanese and spokesman for Fatah al-Islam, told the Associated Press that they would fight to the death. "Let them come; we are ready," he said by phone from inside the camp, a small coastal area of densely packed three- or four-story buildings separated by narrow alleyways.
The special forces troops inching into the camp, driving the militants back into their stronghold, face an unusual array of deadly booby traps, including roadside bombs, car bombs, bottles of propane gas rigged together, and even donkeys and dogs fitted with explosives and sent toward Army lines. Seven soldiers were killed on the first two days of the offensive. The number of casualties among Fatah al-Islam and civilians inside the camp is unknown.
"Fighting in built-up areas is an art form and the Lebanese Army has no real experience [in] it," says a Western Army officer working with a UN agency in Beirut.
But Nizar Abdel-Kader, a retired general in the Lebanese Army and military analyst, says that the Lebanese special forces are among the best-trained troops in the Middle East and are capable of fighting even in the cramped confines of the camp.