A shaky cease-fire between Lebanese soldiers and Islamic militants holed up in a Palestinian refugee camp allowed hundreds of civilians Wednesday to reach safety.
The refugees were caught in crossfire between the troops and members of the Fatah Islam group inside the camp near the northern city of Tripoli. The army fired artillery and machine guns into the camp as the militants put up a sporadic defense.
About 15,000 — nearly half of camp Nahr el-Bared's residents — fled late at night when the fighting stopped, relief officials said. About 1,000 fled Wednesday morning.
They packed into cars, in buses or fled on foot. Most had not eaten and had had no water for days. Many were in shock. Some were crying. Most had no idea where they would find shelter as long as the fighting continues in and around their homes.
Mainstream Palestinian groups backed the Lebanese government and suspended a four-decade-long ban on the Lebanese army entering the camp, clearing the way for a final confrontation. Lebanese officials defend the army's approach, despite the high toll on civilians.
"It was horrible for the Palestinians living in the camp, really horrible, and I'm really sorry that it happened," said Misba Adhad, who represents Tripoli in the Lebanese parliament.
But he says Lebanon has to crush the radical movement that challenged the army and the Lebanese state. Some of the militants have been arrested and have given up details of their organization, Adhad said.
The group has members from Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan and Sudan, who established a base in the camp a year ago, Adhad said. The confrontation began early Sunday morning after members of Fattah al Islam attacked a Lebanese army post outside of the camp.
Most of Nahr el-Bared's misplaced residents have moved to a nearby Palestinian refugee camp at Beddawi, where U.N. and other relief officials provided shelter, mattresses, food and water. But thousands of civilians remain inside the camp, many too weak or too old to move.
Those fleeing reported scenes of destruction with bodies littering the camp's streets. Officials said the bodies of at least 20 civilians had been retrieved from inside the camp, but International Committee of the Red Cross said it has no accurate figures on casualties.
At the hospital, the wounded filled the wards, some two a bed. Those who didn't need emergency care were sent to a local school. Dr. Hassan Suliman, a Palestinian cardiologist who runs a clinic inside Nahr el-Bared, drove out in an ambulance this morning after working without a break for three days.
"How many hour I sleep — one hour. I eat once and sleep one hour, not because of work but because of bombing, too," Suliman said.
Lebanese human rights groups have charged that the army's shelling was indiscriminant and endangered civilian lives.
A relief convoy came under fire early Wednesday as U.N. workers tried to deliver food and water to residents in Nahr el-Bared.
John Holmes, the U.N. undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, called the attack on the U.N. Relief and Works Agency convoy "outrageous and completely unacceptable."
Suliman said a U.N. convoy was hit by a Lebanese army mortar shell.
"The bomb is 100 percent from the army — one bomb, two killed and seven wounded, I think," Suliman said.
The Lebanese army still surrounds the Nahr al-Bared camp. The remnants of the Fattah al Islam group, said to share the ideology of al-Qaida, vow to fight to the death.
The military's attack at the camp has raised fears that the fighting could destabilize Lebanon and push it back into civil war. The U.S.-backed government already faces a domestic political crisis, with the Hezbollah militant group campaigning for its removal.
Lebanese security officials accuse Syria of using Fatah Islam to destabilize Lebanon, a charge Damascus denies. Syria controlled Lebanon for decades until growing street demonstrations by Lebanese and international pressure forced it to withdraw its troops after Hariri's assassination.
Thousands of Palestinians have fled from a refugee camp in northern Lebanon that has been the scene of fighting between the Lebanese army and Islamic militants. The camp is one of a dozen created in Lebanon after the state of Israel was established in 1948.
Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, Lebanon, talks with Steve Inskeep about the state of Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon.
Steve Inskeep: These aren't actually "camps," are they?
These are sort of camps in the sense that they are cordoned-off areas to some degree that began literally as camps about 60 years ago in 1948, when the state of Israel was established and there was a war between the Israelis and the Arabs. Many of the Palestinians at the time fled Palestine, or were pushed out, and were dispersed into the neighboring Arab countries, including Lebanon. These were people who left Palestine thinking they'd be gone for a few days or a few weeks. As it turns out, they've been here for 60 years. So these camps, which were literally tent camps, have turned into shanty towns. The people in these camps have the legal status of refugees, which means that they're not allowed to work in the country or to own property. But they are also protected under United Nations regulations and have U.N. agencies that provide some services, although at a low level.
So people have been told to just sit around — not for years, but for generations?
Absolutely. The condition of these camps is extremely desperate, partly because of the social conditions and partly because of the internal governance. These are not areas where the Lebanese government itself affects any authority, so you end up with gangs and groups just controlling things as they see fit. There's been a push in Lebanon to change the situation, and to provide these Palestinians with economic rights in order to work and own property and improve their conditions. But, sadly, this has been a controversial issue in Lebanon for a while, and some groups have still opposed it.
What is the reason that people would oppose that?
This links to a more general issue. There are some groups in Lebanon which fear that these Palestinians will end up permanently becoming citizens of Lebanon, thus changing some of the internal political balance of the country. In addition, the main Palestinian demand and the main Arab demand is that these Palestinians are allowed to go home — go back to Palestine. That's increasingly unrealistic, but people realize that one has to come up with other solutions in the meantime.
Is that part of the reason that the camps stay there and stay there – because if Palestinians were integrated into normal life in Lebanon or somewhere else, it might be seen as an acknowledgment that Israel has a right to exist and is going to stay there?
The issues are separated. Their situation is the most desperate in Lebanon because it links to intricate Lebanese politics. Palestinians in other Arab countries live in very different conditions — they work and are integrated in the society. Lebanon has done most poorly by the Palestinians because of Lebanon's own intricate internal problems; and the issue of right-of-return for Palestinians is not necessarily linked with the recognition of Israel. The last Arab peace plan offers full recognition to Israel, but also says that these Palestinians either have to be allowed to return or have to be compensated in some major way. They cannot simply be ignored in terms of their rights.