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.
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."
Another Daily Star article printed on Thursday, the one-year anniversary of the war between Hizbullah and Israel, quoted an army statement that said Fatah al-Islam militants "took up again Israel's dirty work." The statement added that, "What Israel was not able to destroy during its 34-day war against Lebanon, Fatah al-Islam is currently destroying."
The New York Times reports that Lebanon's continuing instability may provide foreign militants with the opportunity to establish training bases in the restive country. Maj. Gen. Achraf Rifi, head of Lebanon's Internal Security Forces, estimates that the remaining fighters in Nahr al-Bared include well-trained militants from Saudi Arabia, Syria, Yemen and Algeria who have participated in the Iraqi insurgency. Shakir al-Abssi, Fatah al Islam's leader was an associate of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia who was killed in a US air strike last year.
"One reason we attacked Abssi was to get a message to those people that you don't have to come to Lebanon after your mission in Iraq," General Rifi said.
But Mr. Abssi has been drawing support from Europe as well, according to a Western European intelligence official who spoke on condition of anonymity. There is some evidence that Islamic militants in Western European countries traveled to Lebanon and joined Mr. Abssi's group, the official said, citing recent reports from intelligence agencies of countries other than Lebanon.
Across Lebanon alleged pro-Syrian Palestinian militants have been fortifying bases, reinforcing the positions with munitions, arms and fighters reportedly with assistance from Syria, says Lebanese Prime Minister Siniora. The Christian Science Monitor reports that for decades the government has ignored the small military bases that consist of "a few huts, training grounds, and tunnels that are sunk into rocky hillsides."
But Lebanon's anti-Syrian politicians now say Damascus is using local allies, such as the Palestinian factions, to stir more trouble for the American-backed government, which is already struggling to cope with a political crisis, a spate of deadly bombings, and the recent battles outside Tripoli.
The factions that look to Syria for support include the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC), Fatah Intifada, which broke from the mainstream Fatah movement in 1983, and As-Saiqa. All of the groups have headquarters in Damascus.
"After the Army lost nearly 100 soldiers against Fatah al-Islam, it cannot allow bases like Naameh to continue to exist where they can host another terrorist group. It would be a fatal mistake to allow them to stay," says a senior Lebanese Army officer who spoke on condition of anonymity.