NAHR EL-BARED, Lebanon—An Islamist militant group holed up in a Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon will fight to the death, a spokesman for the group said Friday, adding that newly arrived military aid to the Lebanese army from the United States and other countries didn't faze the fighters.
"The ball is now in the army's court and we are ready for confrontation," said Abu Salim, the spokesman for Fatah al-Islam, a militant Sunni Muslim group that's thought to have links to al-Qaida. "We didn't come here to surrender; we came here for a goal. ... If we are killed, then it is for God. This life is finite, and our guys are prepared to fight, even if the whole world's forces come."
Abu Salim, who uses a nom de guerre, told McClatchy Newspapers in a telephone interview that fighters were ready for the next battle with the Lebanese troops who are surrounding them in the olive groves, citrus orchards and commercial strips outside the Nahr el-Bared camp near Tripoli.
The area remains tense, and a brief truce to clear out the dead and wounded appeared Friday to be on the brink of collapse.
Many terrified and angry Palestinians who fled the camp during the past week's deadly clashes said they felt betrayed by the militants, who had lived mostly in peace among locals since the group formed last fall after severing ties with a less radical Palestinian faction in the camp. They were duped, many refugees said, by the initial generosity, humility and piety of the Fatah al-Islam members.
Ghada Hammoud, 52, said the fighters had won over impoverished Palestinians by handing out care packages of bologna, sugar and beans. A year later, she considers herself and others naive for welcoming a group that has now engaged in battles that have killed more than 70 people and forced some 15,000 Palestinians to flee their homes in the camp.
"They tricked us with boxes of food, and now we're sleeping in the streets," Hammoud said bitterly.
Abu Salim said Fatah al-Islam never pretended to be anything other than what it was: a jihadist organization that aimed to protect Sunni interests and reclaim Jerusalem for Palestinians. By his account, several families in the camp have taken up arms alongside Fatah al-Islam and have offered their homes as hideouts. The group refused, he said, for fear of putting civilians in the line of fire.
"You only heard one side. The people who stayed here at the camp pray for us and join us," Abu Salim said. "Besides, we never promised the camp comfort. They knew from the beginning why we came. This is God's way, that his subjects suffer on this earth. We communicated this picture to the camp's residents."
Several factional leaders and Nahr el-Bared residents who were taking shelter in the nearby Baddawi camp, however, painted a different picture of the shadowy group.
They said that radical Islamists from as far away as Pakistan and Somalia had set up shop at Nahr el-Bared in the past year, easing locals' initial wariness by keeping a low profile, never pushing their ideology upon others and donating goods and services.
"We saw them as good people. They fasted, they prayed, they lived for God," said Hassan Suleiman, a cardiologist and Red Crescent worker who said he had treated Lebanese, Algerian, Syrian and other foreign fighters at the camp. "It was like a cocktail, a mixed international group. As a doctor, I have to operate with blind eyes. I have to treat everyone equally, but on the streets, I never greeted them, I never even said hello."
Fatah al-Islam's leader is Shaker al-Absi, a Palestinian militant and—Lebanese security officials charge—a veteran of the insurgent movements in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2004, a Jordanian military court convicted him in absentia of charges related to an assassination plot against an American diplomat. Al-Absi also served time in a Syrian prison. After his release, he moved to Nahr el-Bared and joined forces with Fatah al-Intifada, a splinter group from the secular Palestinian Fatah party, according to Palestinian and Lebanese officials.
Al-Absi's followers broke with Fatah al-Intifada last November, and quickly announced the formation of a new armed faction called Fatah al-Islam. At the time, Lebanese media reported that its fighters numbered no more than 80, though current estimates range from 120 to 350.
"There were no checkpoints; no one was asking about weapons coming in. It wasn't heavily guarded and, anyway, the fighters all stayed on the outskirts," said Suleiman, the doctor. "When they left Fatah al-Intifada, we said, `Um, who are these people?' Come to find out they'd been here eight months."
Though they kept to homes on the outskirts of the camp, Fatah al-Islam members were visible in the community. Residents said they prayed alongside Palestinians at mosques in the camps, handed out electric generators and, in a couple of instances, wed and looked after older women whose prospects for marriage had diminished.
Even some Palestinians who were wounded in the skirmishes of the past week recall the small kindnesses of the group's members. Rehan Sayed Khuder, 20, lost her father in crossfire last Sunday and sustained a chest wound from shrapnel. She said she would probably be dead if fighters hadn't ushered her to safety.
Her friend and neighbor, a 31-year-old man who would give only his first name, Bassam, blamed the bloodshed on Lebanese authorities, who he said fired indiscriminately into the camp. He praised the Fatah al-Islam militants who stayed to fight the Lebanese troops; he recounted in admiring tones how some fighters put out fires during the battle, even when their own bodies were aflame.
"We don't blame the militants, we blame the government. They shelled the Jalil Mosque with people still praying inside. They hit the cemetery so hard, bones started showing through the dirt," Bassam said, his voice rising in fury. "Cleaning the camp, that's what they say, cleaning the camp. What they mean is cleaning out all the Palestinians."
Lebanese authorities began aggressively pursuing the group in February, charging that it was behind bombings of commuter buses that killed three people in a Christian district east of Beirut. Residents said the army started searching visitors to the camp and stopped the flow of construction materials into Nahr el-Bared. As life in the already gloomy, decrepit enclave became even more frustrating, residents said, suspicions spread about the mysterious group.
During the crackdown, members of the extended Layla clan from Nahr al-Bared recounted, residents noticed that most Fatah al-Islam members had begun donning scarves that hid their faces. There was a sense that they were on high alert.
When the fighting broke out last week in response to a Lebanese raid on suspected militants in downtown Tripoli, even battle-hardened Palestinians said they were stunned by Fatah al-Islam's arsenal.
"There were so many weapons we hadn't seen in the camp before," said Khaled Layla, 34, a bus driver whose arm was fractured when an artillery shell exploded near him. "OK, before we had Kalashnikovs, 80-millimeter mortars, 14-gauge shotguns, rocket-propelled grenades. But these fighters had M-16s, like the American army. We were shocked at the rockets, some of them 60 centimeters, and new mortars, 120 millimeters."
Along with the new weapons, members of the Layla clan said, new faces appeared.
"There were maybe 20 or 30 people we'd never seen before, and in the past five months it was impossible to get into the camp, so how did they get in?" said Ziad Layla, 23, an aspiring filmmaker. "They took off their scarves, and we suddenly saw Somalis, Yemenis, Pakistanis."
"Exactly," agreed his uncle, Khaled. "Some of them had luxurious villas in Tripoli, and the government knew. Yes, maybe some fugitives moved into Nahr el-Bared, but how did they get into Tripoli before that?"
Sami Haddad, the Lebanese economy minister, who's allied with the ruling anti-Syrian government bloc, said the militants were of "Syrian obedience" and received funding from Persian Gulf countries; he mentioned Saudi Arabia. Fatah al-Islam leaders, as well as the Syrian government, have denied that the two are linked.
U.S. and other Western intelligence officials are skeptical that a Sunni Islamist group is taking orders from the secular regime in Damascus. They agree, however, that donors in Saudi Arabia and other Sunni nations have been financing Sunni extremist groups in northern Lebanon to counter the militant Lebanese Shiite Muslim group Hezbollah, which Iran backs.
Haddad said reports of "legions of exotic nationalities" among the fighters were exaggerated and that most were Lebanese, aided by a handful of Palestinians, Syrians and other Arabs.
"The overwhelming majority of the militants, the terrorists, are not Palestinian," Haddad said. "The explanation is that these people were seduced by a combination of fanaticism and arms."
Tales of the group's sophisticated weaponry, Haddad said, aren't exaggerated. Lebanese authorities think that the arms were smuggled into the country across the Syrian border, which is just a few miles from the camp.
After the bus bombings in February, Haddad said, suspects said they were part of Fatah al-Islam and pointed authorities to their headquarters in Nahr el-Bared. The military responded by encircling the camp and tightening security in and around Tripoli.
"It's obvious now with hindsight that it was not as ironclad as one would've liked it to be," Haddad conceded. "They are heavily armed, well-trained and determined."