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Militants in Lebanon told to surrender

Islamists vow to fight any army assault

Palestinians fled from inside the refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared yesterday in Tripoli, Lebanon. Islamic militants who were held up in the Nahr el-Bared refugee camp have called a cease-fire with Lebanese troops after three days of fighting. (Salah Malkawi/Getty Images)

NAHR EL-BARED REFUGEE CAMP, Lebanon -- Lebanon's defense minister issued an ultimatum yesterday to Islamic militants barricaded in this Palestinian refugee camp to surrender or face a military onslaught.

Fighters from the Al Qaeda- inspired Fatah Islam militant group vowed not to give up and to fight any Lebanese assault.

Storming the Nahr el-Bared camp, a densely built-up town of narrow streets on the Mediterranean coast, could mean rough urban fighting for Lebanese troops and further death and destruction for the thousands of civilians who remain inside.

It could also have grave repercussions elsewhere across troubled Lebanon, sparking unrest among the country's estimated 400,000 Palestinian refugees.

Already some of the other refugee camps in Lebanon, which are rife with armed groups, are seething with anger over the fighting.

But the military appeared determined to uproot Fatah Islam after three days of heavy bombardment of the camp, sparked by an attack by the militants on Lebanese troops Sunday following a raid on its fighters in the nearby northern city of Tripoli.

"Preparations are seriously under way to end the matter," Defense Minister Elias Murr said in an interview with Al-Arabiya television. "The army will not negotiate with a group of terrorists and criminals. Their fate is arrest, and if they resist the army, death."

Members of Fatah Islam said they were ready to fight.

"We are not going to let those pigs defeat us," said one of a half-dozen fighters standing outside the group's office inside the camp. The fighter, who identified himself with the pseudonym Abu Jaafar, wore a belt hung with grenades.

Another militant who said he was a deputy leader of the group said the fighters were willing to agree to a cease-fire if the military allowed them to remain in the camp.

But the militant, who gave his pseudonym as Abu Hureira, warned the troops would "face a massacre" if they attempt to enter Nahr el-Bared.

It is unclear how many Fatah Islam fighters are in the camp, but Abu Hureira said they number more than 500.

Around half of Nahr el-Bared's 31,000 residents have fled since a halt in the fighting Tuesday night, some clutching babies and plastic bags full of clothes. They traveled on foot and in cars past burned-out shops on streets strewn with broken glass, garbage and dead rats.

But thousands remain behind, either too ill to travel or unwilling to abandon their homes, and are now in danger of being caught in the crossfire.

John Holmes, the UN undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, appealed for immediate access to the refugee camp to deliver relief supplies and evacuate the wounded. A UN relief convoy came under fire Tuesday as it attempted to deliver food and water to residents.

He urged the Lebanese government "to exercise maximum restraint" inside the camp.

Occasional gunshots broke the quiet at the camp Tuesday night, witnesses said, but there was no fighting yesterday. In the afternoon, the army brought seven more armored carriers to its positions ringing the camp, although the troops did not move beyond the front line.

Murr said 30 Lebanese soldiers were killed in the three days of fighting, along with as many as 60 militants, including fighters from Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, and Saudi Arabia. But a top Fatah Islam leader said only 10 of his men were killed.

UN relief officials said the bodies of at least 20 civilians were retrieved from inside the camp during the lull in fighting.

The Lebanese government appeared to be preparing in case the showdown sparks violence elsewhere in the country. In a sign of the danger, a bomb exploded last night in a mountain resort overlooking Beirut, a 90-minute drive south of Nahr el-Bared. The blast, which injured five people, was the third in the Beirut area since Sunday.

Also yesterday, Lebanese troops killed an Islamic militant as he prepared to throw a grenade at a unit of security forces raiding an apartment in Tripoli, police said. Lebanon's state-run National News Agency said two passers-by were wounded in the exchange.

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