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Authorities Vow Showdown at Lebanon Camp

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Palestinian refugees cross from the southern entrance of their besieged refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared in north Lebanon to safety. Ramzi Haidar/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Ramzi Haidar/AFP/Getty Images

Palestinian refugees cross from the southern entrance of their besieged refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared in north Lebanon to safety.

Ramzi Haidar/AFP/Getty Images

As sporadic gunfire erupted again Thursday inside the Nahr el-Bared refugee camp in Lebanon, government officials pledged to uproot insurgents who have barricaded themselves inside.

Meanwhile, some of the 10,000 to 15,000 people who left the camp on Wednesday described a hellish three-day ordeal without water food or medicine.

Islamic militants have been holed up at the camp all week, trying to hold off the Lebanese army. Lebanon's defense minister has told the Fatah Islam fighters to surrender or face a military onslaught. Lebanon's leader has vowed to "root out" the insurgents.

Many in the camp took advantage of a cease-fire Wednesday to scurry away from the fighting any way they could. One man described stuffing 18 members of his family into a Mercedes taxi cab.

But as many as 20,000 people remain in the line of fire. One man who did leave said he couldn't convince his father to come with him. The father has lived in the camp since it was created in 1948 and said he was willing to die there.

Clinics inside the camp are said to be overwhelmed by the dead and wounded after three days of what amounts to urban warfare.

Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, in an address to the nation, said that his government would stamp out Fatah Islam.

"We will work to root out and strike at terrorism, but we will embrace and protect our brothers in the camps," Saniora said in a TV speech, insisting Lebanon has no quarrel with the 400,000 Palestinian refugees who live in the country.

Saniora said Fatah Islam is "a terrorist organization that claims to be Islamic and to defend Palestine" and was "attempting to ride on the suffering and the struggle of the Palestinian people."

It was not clear what sparked shooting in the camp Thursday, as a truce had held since Tuesday afternoon. Half a dozen soldiers followed by an armored car and a light vehicle headed toward a forward army position at the camp's northern entrance.

The army's first checkpoints are some 500 yards from the buildings on the edge of Nahr el-Bared. Militant positions begin farther down inside the sprawling maze of houses.

Lebanon's government appeared to be preparing in case the showdown sparks violence elsewhere in the country. In a sign of the danger, a bomb exploded Wednesday night in the Aley mountain resort overlooking Beirut, a 90-minute drive south of Nahr el-Bared. The blast, which injured 16 people, was the third in the Beirut area since Sunday.

June is tourist season in Lebanon and the nation's damaged economy depends on tourist dollars. A bombing at a resort sends a message to Arab tourists that the nation is not safe.

However, authorities are not certain that the rash of bombings are directly tied to the violence at Nahr el-Bared.

Already some of the other refugee camps in Lebanon, which are rife with armed groups, are seething with anger over the fighting.

The government's pledge to stamp out the Fatah Islam fighters at Nahr el-Bared seems to have the support of most in Lebanon and many in the larger Arab world surrounding it. Yet a massacre inside the camp carries potential political risks.

The military appears determined to uproot Fatah Islam after three days of heavy bombardment of the camp — an assault sparked by an attack by the militants on Lebanese troops Sunday following a raid on its fighters in the nearby northern Lebanon city of Tripoli.

"Preparations are seriously under way to end the matter," Defense Minister Elias Murr said in an interview Wednesday with Al-Arabiya television. "The army will not negotiate with a group of terrorists and criminals. Their fate is arrest, and if they resist the army, death."

Members of Fatah Islam said they were ready to fight.

"We are not going to let those pigs defeat us," said one of a half-dozen fighters standing outside the group's office inside the camp Wednesday. The fighter, who identified himself with the pseudonym Abu Jaafar, wore a belt hung with grenades.

— From The Associated Press and reports by NPR's Deborah Amos.