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Lebanese fear growth of Islamic militancy

As fighting in the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp enters its eighth week, Lebanese officials fear the emergence of global jihadists in the troubled nation.

By / July 13, 2007

Eight weeks after the Lebanese Army began battling Al Qaeda-inspired militants in northern Lebanon and three weeks after the army declared victory, the fighting rages on. Most recently, the Fatah al-Islam militants sniped Lebanese soldiers and fired rockets at the troops and villages surrounding the embattled Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp. As daily battles continue, concerns are rising that global jihadists may be amassing in Lebanon and fortifying positions in Palestinian refugee camps throughout the country.

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After a sniper killed at least one soldier late Tuesday night and Fatah al-Islam militants refused to surrender, the Lebanese army escalated hostilities and began firing several artillery shells into the camp every minute. On Friday, the Islamic fighters responded by firing between six to 12 Katyusha rockets. The Associated Press reports that the militants may have launched the rocket attack in an effort to "ease the military pressure and expand the battles outside the camp."

A total of nine rockets crashed into villages neighboring the refugee camp, as well as in orange and grape groves, security officials and the state-run National News Agency said.
The rockets caused some damage but no casualties, said the officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

Reuters reports that this week's fighting has been the "most ferocious" since the Lebanese defense minister declared victory on June 21. So far the fighting has left at least 214 people dead.

The military, concerned about being sucked into a war of attrition, has stepped up pressure on the coastal camp to force the militants to surrender.
But the well-trained and well-armed militants, some of whom fought in Iraq or trained to go to fight there, have so far rejected all calls to lay down their arms.

Lebanese military officials denied claims that the intensified clashes are preparation for a final assault, reports the BBC. An official army statement announced that, "[t]he ongoing military operations are still in the context of tightening the noose on the gunmen to force them to surrender." Meanwhile, Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora condemned the militants and their cause.

"A gang that has no connection with the Palestinian cause or the values of Islam managed to kidnap the camp, take its people hostage, and at the same time attack the army, the security forces, the citizens, and the Lebanese state," he said on Wednesday.

Most of the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp's 30,000 residents have fled to avoid the fighting. On Wednesday, another 150 residents left as the Lebanese army brought in reinforcements. Palestinian cleric Sheikh Mohammed al-Hajj, a member of the Clerics of Palestine Association, attempted to help evacuate 21 women and 52 children related to the fighters. The women, mostly the wives of fighters, rejected Sheikh al-Hajj's assistance four times, reports Lebanon's Daily Star.

"The wives said they want to die with their husbands," a Palestinian source at Beddawi camp who was involved in arranging the evacuation cars told The Daily Star.
"Two of the women are Palestinian, one is from Borj al-Barajneh, and the other from Ain al-Hilweh," said the source, adding: "the one from Ain al-Hilweh is Abu Huriera's wife."