NAHR AL-BARED, Lebanon (Reuters) – Lebanon’s army battled al Qaeda-linked militants who threatened to open “gates of fire” after clashes which killed 21 people, 13 of them soldiers, on Sunday.
It was Lebanon’s worst internal fighting since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war, and was triggered when security forces raided homes in Tripoli to arrest suspects from the Fatah al-Islam group accused of robbing a bank a day earlier.
A cabinet minister said the fighting with the group, which the government says is backed by Syria, seemed timed to try to derail U.N. moves to set up an international court to investigate political killings in Lebanon.
The soldiers were killed at Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp near Tripoli and in an attack on an army patrol in al-Qalamoun, just south of the city, a security source said.
Four Fatah al-Islam fighters were killed in the camp, which is home to 40,000 Palestinian refugees. Medical sources in the camp said four civilians, including two children, had also been killed and 45 wounded.
Fatah al-Islam, a Sunni Muslim group with links to al Qaeda, said the army had launched an unprovoked attack.
“We warn the Lebanese army of the consequences of continuing the provocative acts against our mujahideen who will open the gates of fire … against (the army) and against the whole of Lebanon,” it said in a statement.
The army had tightened its grip around Nahr al-Bared camp since authorities charged Fatah al-Islam members with two bus bombings in a Christian area near Beirut in February. Three civilians were killed by the bombs.
Cabinet minister Ahmad Fatfat, speaking in Tripoli, linked the clashes to what he said were efforts to derail U.N. moves to set up the international tribunal for suspects in the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri.
A U.N. probe has implicated Syria and Lebanese officials in the Hariri killing. Damascus denies any involvement in the killing. It also denies any link to Fatah al-Islam which, according to its leader, has no organisational links to al Qaeda but agrees with its aim of fighting ‘infidels’.
Syria closed two of its border crossings into northern Lebanon because of the security situation there, according to an official Syrian statement. The main crossing remained open.
Fatfat told Lebanon’s pro-government Future TV: “There is someone trying to create security chaos to say to world public opinion: ‘Look, if the tribunal is established, there will be security trouble in Lebanon’.”
The United States, France and Britain last week circulated a draft U.N. resolution that would unilaterally set up the court, which is at the heart of a political crisis in Lebanon.
CLASHES IN TRIPOLI
The rattle of assault rifles and machineguns could be heard, and thuds from explosions rocked the Nahr al-Bared area after the fighting broke out before dawn. Residents were trapped indoors and called for a ceasefire to evacuate the wounded.
The army sent in reinforcements to the outskirts of the camp where smoke could be seen rising into the air. The army is not allowed into Palestinian camps under a 1969 Arab agreement.
An army statement said the clashes began when Fatah al-Islam attacked army posts around the camp and in northern Tripoli.
Security forces had also been trying to arrest Fatah al-Islam members suspected of robbing a bank on Saturday, security sources said. A group of suspected Fatah al-Islam members had been detained, the sources said.
Security forces clashed with gunmen in Tripoli itself while trying to arrest Fatah al-Islam members holed up in a building in the predominantly Sunni Muslim city, which is Lebanon’s second largest. Smoke rose from a building in the city.
Fatah al-Islam was formed last year by fighters who broke off from the Syria-backed Fatah Uprising group.