NAHR EL BARED, Lebanon—The Lebanese military pounded a northern Palestinian refugee camp with artillery shells Friday and traded gunfire with Islamist militants in a daylong battle that ended a brief lull in a standoff that began May 20.
The showdown signaled an end to negotiations between Palestinian factions and Lebanese officials, and if it escalates it could threaten Lebanon's fragile peace. A statement from the Lebanese army said militants were using innocent Palestinians as "human shields" and that troops would pursue the group if it didn't surrender.
Lebanese security officials said that at least three soldiers had been killed in Friday's clashes, the fiercest fighting in a week at the Nahr el Bared camp along the Mediterranean coast near the port city of Tripoli. Explosions rocked the pastoral landscape and thick plumes of smoke rose from the camp, where as many as 300 militants from a shadowy group called Fatah al Islam are holed up.
A Lebanese army official who spoke on condition of anonymity said an elite commando unit had captured three militant positions, adding that the military has yet to launch a full-fledged offensive to uproot the extremist group, which is accused of having links to al-Qaida. As the day wore on, several columns of Lebanese armored vehicles massed around the camp and new checkpoints sprang up along the route from nearby Tripoli to Nahr el Bared.
The shelling was so intense that neither relief workers nor journalists were able to enter the camp, where some 5,000 Palestinian civilians remain trapped and suffering from a lack of electricity, food and medical supplies. More than 20,000 residents of the camp have fled since the fighting began when militants killed 22 Lebanese soldiers after a raid on a Fatah al Islam compound in Tripoli.
A total of 34 Lebanese soldiers, 20 civilians and at least 60 militants have died in the fighting, according to government figures. Dozens have been wounded, but casualty tolls are incomplete because of the lack of access to the camp.
"You can't get out of your house. Half of the camp is destroyed," Rami Omar Qassim, 22, said by telephone from the Nahr el Bared camp. "No one is sympathizing with Fatah al Islam, and we support the state's right to fight them, but not in this way."
A 1969 agreement guarantees Palestinians autonomy over all 12 refugee camps in Lebanon, barring Lebanese troops from entering them. Storming the Nahr el Bared camp would be risky for the Lebanese government, which already faces criticism from many Palestinians for "indiscriminate" shelling that's resulted in the loss of life and property.
An assault on Nahr el Bared could sow unrest in the nation's other Palestinian refugee camps and strengthen radical Palestinian and Islamist groups in Lebanon and elsewhere.
While the mainstream Palestinian Fatah party supports the Lebanese military's efforts to cleanse the area of militants, other Palestinian factions demanded an end to the bombardment Friday and staged a sit-in at another camp nearby to draw attention to the plight of Palestinian civilians caught in the conflict.
"The negotiations had been going fine until yesterday, so we were surprised by today's events, which seem aimed at pushing Fatah al Islam toward succumbing, especially after the military's gains on the ground," said Sheik Mohamed el Haj, a representative of the Sunni Islamist group Hamas from Nahr el Bared. "Now the wounded are lying everywhere and no one can reach them because of the intense shelling. They are bleeding to death."
Lebanese who live among the vast olive groves and banana farms just outside the camp watched the fighting from the roofs of their hilltop homes. The camp's dreary, matchbox dwellings were visible in the distance, bordered on one side by the shimmering Mediterranean. Lebanese artillery shells sailed overhead and the acrid smell of gunpowder filled the air.
Palestinian refugees began arriving in Lebanon when Israel was declared an independent state in 1948, and they've never been entirely welcome. In this mostly Sunni area, support for the Lebanese military is strong, and locals said the extremist brand of Islam that Fatah al Islam espoused was a distortion of their faith.
Emotions ran high Friday at a mosque where verses from the Quran sounded from a tall minaret.
"Fatah al Islam is Fatah al Satan," Hashim Gawad, 47, a Lebanese mechanic, said after his afternoon prayers.
"They claim they're fighting the Jews. Well, there are no Jews here," added Sheik Khaled al-Dahayba, 51, the mosque's imam. "The Jews are in Palestine and the Americans are in Iraq. We're here, united with the army and supportive of our Palestinian brothers who got mixed up in all this."
Fatah al Islam's leader is Shaker al-Absi, a Palestinian militant and, Lebanese security officials think, a veteran of the insurgent movements in Iraq and Afghanistan. Al-Absi served time in a Syrian prison and, after his release in 2004, moved to Nahr el Bared and joined forces with Fatah al Intifada, a Syrian-backed splinter group from Fatah. Al-Absi and his followers later broke from that group and formed Fatah al Islam in November 2006.
While the makeup and strength of the group are in dispute, Lebanese security officials and several residents of Nahr el Bared said foreign fighters from Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Syria and other countries were among the militants. Lebanese officials describe the group as sophisticated and heavily armed.
Some members of Lebanon's ruling anti-Syrian government bloc charge that the group is a front for Syrian intelligence agents. Others charge that it's at least inspired by—if not directly connected to—the al-Qaida terrorist network.
Fatah al Islam's leaders repeatedly have refused to surrender, saying they intend to fight to the death.