Lull in Fighting Allows Refugees to Flee

Thousands of have fled a crowded refugee camp in Lebanon during a lull in the fighting between Lebanese troops and Islamic militants holed up inside the camp. U.N. relief officials in another camp nearby say they expect 10,000 Palestinian refugees to arrive throughout the night. Michele Norris talks with NPR's Deborah Amos.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Outside the city of Tripoli in Lebanon today, relief workers risked gunfire and explosions as they try to deliver supplies to a Palestinian refugee camp. Islamist militants have been battling Lebanese army troops there for the past three days. At least 80 people have been killed and there are fears that many more bodies may be beneath the rubble.

NPR's Deborah Amos reached the entrance to the camp today and she joins us now.

Deborah, there was a truce this afternoon and for the first time since the fighting began, trucks began carrying emergency supplies into the camp, but they almost immediately, it sounds like, came under fire. Who actually started the shooting?

DEBORAH AMOS: Well, Michele, that's unclear because the camp has been closed off not just for journalists but for most humanitarian aid workers. I stood at the perimeter of the camp this afternoon when the U.N. confirmed that a pickup truck and a water tanker were hit. At sunset when I left the perimeter of the camp, the shelling had stopped and the International Committee of the Red Cross said that they'd been able to evacuate 27 of the dead and wounded, but they've put all of the offices of the ICRC in the country on alert because they believe when this crisis ends that there is going to be many more dead and wounded that haven't been evacuated.

NORRIS: Deborah, there were reports late today that some people had made it out of the camp but it sounds like there are still very many civilians inside. What's happening to them?

AMOS: Well, Michele, some did manage to escape today in the lull, but U.N. workers who were in the camp say it's being destroyed from the inside. Remember, this is a camp that's home to about 30,000 people and what it is is a warren of houses. They're all packed very tightly together so the shelling can destroy a lot. And you can see that damage; you can see all the pockmarks from the perimeter of the camps.

The civilians are trapped between the army and the militants, and while many of those Palestinians, the ones who have come out said they're glad to see the army take on this group because this group has made life hell for them inside the camps. The shelling and the heavy civilian casualties has raised real alarms among Palestinians and other refugee camps and there have been demonstrations today - burning of tires in some of the other camps.

NORRIS: Now, this refugee camp is on the outskirts of Tripoli. It's the largest city in northern Lebanon. Has the violence spread to Tripoli at all?

AMOS: Today, the city was very tense. There are army checkpoints all over town. You see tanks driving by. The Lebanese army is flushing out militants who are inside the city. And today, one member was surrounded by the army and instead of giving himself up, he was wearing a suicide belt and he blew himself up.

Now, young Lebanese men were out on the street today to support the army. It's one of the only institutions in the country that has widespread support. And at the same time, there's a lot of anger. You could feel it on the street today among Lebanese who direct that at the Palestinians for challenging the army and that anger is not going to go away anytime soon.

NORRIS: And this has been going on for three days now. Are they any closer to a resolution?

AMOS: Well, the Lebanese government on Monday said it was determined to crush the movement, and they have support from Washington to continue. The mainstream Palestinian groups who do have control over the camps initially supported the Lebanese government. They said very publicly they did, but it's the high civilian casualties that have brought complaints that the government is taking a page from Israel's tactics. And that's not good here. It doesn't play well even among the Lebanese.

As for Fatah el Islam, they've been floating some cease-fire agreements but each time that cease-fire breaks down, either the army starts shooting or the militants start shooting again. Now, it has been quiet tonight for quite sometime so that could be a sign that there are some negotiations. But the Lebanese army may be able to crush Fatah el Islam. That radicalism that's growing in the camps and even among some Lebanese fueled in part by the war in Iraq, that is quite likely to spring up again.

NORRIS: Thank you, Deborah.

AMOS: Thanks, Michele.

NORRIS: That was NPR's Deborah Amos speaking to us from Tripoli.

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Palestinian Refugees Flee Besieged Camp

A member of the Lebanese Red Cross carries one-month-old Palestinian baby Tala al-Qadi. i i

A member of the Lebanese Red Cross carries one-month-old Palestinian baby Tala al-Qadi after she was evacuated from the besieged refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared to Safad hospital in the adjacent Badawi refugee camp. Joseph Barrak/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Joseph Barrak/AFP/Getty Images
A member of the Lebanese Red Cross carries one-month-old Palestinian baby Tala al-Qadi.

A member of the Lebanese Red Cross carries one-month-old Palestinian baby Tala al-Qadi after she was evacuated from the besieged refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared to Safad hospital in the adjacent Badawi refugee camp.

Joseph Barrak/AFP/Getty Images

Thousands of people at a besieged Palestinian refugee camp used a break in the fighting between encircling army troops and militants inside to flee the three-day bombardment, reporters and witnesses said Tuesday.

Associated Press reporters at the Nahr el-Bared refugee camp said the massive exodus began at about 9 p.m. during a lull in the fighting between the Lebanese army and the Fatah Islam militant group of Sunni Muslims.

Refugees were seen raising white towels or white plastic bags from windows. Boys carried babies, and a young boy and a woman helped an elderly woman as cars sped past carrying more refugees.

"There are a lot of dead and wounded in the houses; our homes are being destroyed on our heads," said a young refugee woman in a blue veil quoted by the AP.

A man angrily interrupted her: "There's been a massacre; I witnessed it."

He said he had seen 10 civilians killed in one room. "Six shells fell on us; the bodies were cut to pieces," he told the news agency.

U.N. relief officials in another camp located a few miles to the south of Tripoli said they expected 10,000 Palestinian refugees from Nahr el-Bared to arrive throughout the night.

Reports from inside the camp, where the army laid siege Sunday, said the 31,000 people were running out of water.

Earlier, a U.N. relief convoy trying to deliver water, among other things, was caught in the crossfire. A U.N. Relief and Works Agency official quoted by AP on condition of anonymity said there may have been one or more casualties.

The official said a pickup truck and a water tanker were caught between the lines of the Lebanese army and the militant Fatah Islam fighters and were hit as they entered the camp, but it was not clear where the fire had come from.

"We hear a lot of bombs and shooting," Mira Minkara, a resident of Tripoli, Lebanon, told NPR's Day to Day. "We thought it would stop once [the army] surrounded the camp."

"We didn't think [the militants] would be so strong and so stubborn about holding themselves in this building," she said.

It was the third day of the siege in which soldiers perched on a nearby hill fired artillery and machine guns into the camp.

Overnight, the government ordered the army to finish off the militants in the camp, home to 31,000 Palestinian refugees. At least 50 combatants have been killed since fighting erupted Sunday.

Militants in the camp, believed to number a few hundred, were reportedly returning fire. It was the worst internal fighting in Lebanon since the country's civil war ended in 1990.

Black smoke billowed from the area at the Nahr el-Bared camp on the outskirts of the port city of Tripoli while the U.N. Relief and Works Agency scrambled to evacuate one of its employees, a Palestinian aid worker wounded Monday, Taleb al-Salhani of UNRWA said.

Lebanese soldiers stopped six UNRWA trucks, including a water tanker, saying it was too dangerous to enter the camp. Al-Salhani said he hoped for a cease-fire later in the day to allow the U.N. convoy through.

Inside the city itself, security forces moved in against a suspected Fatah Islam hideout in an apartment building, witnesses said.

The government is determined to pursue Islamic militants who have staged attacks on the Lebanese army since Sunday, killing 29 soldiers. About 20 militants have also been killed, along with an undetermined number of civilians.

Lebanon's Cabinet late Monday authorized the army to step up its campaign and "end the terrorist phenomenon that is alien to the values and nature of the Palestinian people," Information Minister Ghazi Aridi said.

From NPR and Associated Press reports.

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