Lebanese Army Battles Islamist Group in Refugee Camp

The Lebanese army fought gun battles Sunday with an Islamist faction based in a Palestinian refugee camp in Tripoli. More than 30 people were killed. The fighting flared in the midst of a struggle for power between pro-American and pro-Syrian forces in Lebanon. Debbie Elliott gets analysis from Annia Ciezadlo, senior correspondent for The New Republic in Beirut.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Debbie Elliott.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

That was the sound today in the Lebanese city of Tripoli. Lebanese citizens cheered as their army moved into a Palestinian refugee camp after battling an Islamist militant faction based there. Dozens of people were killed. I spoke earlier with Annia Ciezadlo, a journalist based in Beirut, and asked her what prompted the battle.

Ms. ANNIA CIEZADLO (Senior Correspondent, The New Republic, Beirut): There was a bank robbery yesterday in a small town in the north of Lebanon. The Lebanese authorities moved in to an apartment in Tripoli that was believed to have been linked with the bank robbery. The authorities are saying that they believe that Fatah al-Islam, which is this militant group, was involved in the bank robbery.

So after they seized these guys in this apartment and apparently killed 9 or 10 of them, Fatah al-Islam, which is this militant group in one of the camps in the north, seized some of the checkpoints that were held by the Lebanese army around the camp and gun battles followed as the Lebanese army tried to take their positions back.

ELLIOT: What can you tell us about this group?

Ms. CIEZADLO: Fatah al-Islam is an offshoot of another militant group. It got new blood with a new leader - relatively new leader - who is a Palestinian fugitive. He's wanted in Jordan in connection with the murder of Laurence Foley, an American diplomat. He's believed to be an associate of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian terrorist who was killed in Iraq.

So you have a dangerous situation in the north of Lebanon with a lot of these groups. A lot of them have been around for a long time in one form or another. But due to the Iraq war in the past several years, they've gotten a tremendous infusion of loyalty; they've really been, kind of, stretching their muscles a lot.

ELLIOTT: This is being described as the worst factional fighting in Lebanon in years. What are the wider implications of this particular clash?

Ms. CIEZADLO: They are very serious. There's a huge power struggle in Lebanon right now. The country is almost, I would say, paralyzed and divided into two factions. One of which is very loosely aligned with the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. The other one, which is aligned with Iran and Syria. And it's a very dangerous situation to see the Palestinians being brought into anything right now because their loyalties, and struggles over their loyalties, are exactly how the Lebanese civil war began.

I don't want to overdraw the comparison, but you - you have a danger when you see people being drawn into factional struggles between various different positions. And that could be what's happening now.

ELLIOTT: Annia Ciezadlo is a special correspondent for the New Republic. She's based in Beirut. Thank you for speaking with us.

Ms. CIEZADLO: Thank you for having me.

ELLIOTT: And there are reports late tonight of an explosion near a shopping mall in Beirut. No word yet on whether it was related to the fighting.

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