Truce Holds in Lebanon; Ordeal Hard on Refugees

A truce between Lebanon's army and Islamist militants is mostly holding at a Palestinian refugee camp outside Tripoli, Lebanon. But three days of fighting took a toll on many who live at the camp.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Steve Inskeep.

Here's where the situation stands in a refugee camp in Lebanon. Thousands of Palestinian refugees had been moved out of that camp since fighting started, but Islamists militants remain inside and they're vowing to fight Lebanon's army, which wants them out.

NPR's Deborah Amos is covering the story from Beirut. And Deborah, what's known about the situation inside the camp there?

DEBORAH AMOS: We were able to talk to many of the refugees who left in a spontaneous evacuation, and they said it was sheer hell. They had three days of bombardment in that camp. Many people managed it with no water, no food. And their children, they told me, some of them were eating Pringles potato chips. It's the only thing they had in the house. No bread, no medicine. And it was very tough for them. When they had the opportunity when there was a ceasefire, about 10,000 to 15,000 of them got out as fast as they could. I talked to a man yesterday who said all 18 of his family got into one Mercedes taxicab to get out of the camp.

There were lots of refugees who were evacuated in ambulances because there had been so many wounded and the clinics there inside the camp were just overwhelmed, so they were coming out all day yesterday.

INSKEEP: Even though a lot of people had left, are there still civilians in the line of fire?

AMOS: There are. There are some, perhaps, 20,000 still inside the camp. I talked to a doctor who told me that his father, who moved into that camp in 1948 when he left what was then Palestine, and he was not going to be a refugee again. So he's in his 70s and he said I'm going to die here.

INSKEEP: Well now, let me understand the situation then, you had the Lebanese army outside and they've issued an ultimatum essentially to these militants: surrender or die. What are they going to do about it?

AMOS: That is the threat from the Lebanese minister of defense, and that was on television last night. It's not clear what they're going to do about it. There's lots of negotiations going on now. There are Palestinian factions inside the camps who are talking to the militants.

The militants are talking on satellite television. That's where they said we will fight to the death inside the camps. I think there's some fears here, Steve, of urban warfare inside that camp. You know, the Arab world has a long memory. Twenty-five years ago, there was a massacre in a Palestinian camp here in Sabra and Shatila. So the Lebanese government is being very careful. At the moment they have Arab public opinion behind them, certainly Lebanese public opinion behind them. But a massacre in that camp as the army goes in will be bad for public perceptions.

So they are making those threats, but they are talking to anybody who can talk to the militants. But their bottom line is very clear: You have to surrender, you will come under arrest, you cannot stay on that camp, or we will use the military to route you out.

INSKEEP: And Deborah, I have to ask if the fighting is really constrained to that camp and the area around it, simply because there was a bombing yesterday in Beirut where you are or near Beirut.

AMOS: Well, we don't know if it's connected, because nobody says why or who is doing this. We had one in a predominantly Christian neighborhood, then in a predominantly Sunni neighborhood. And now it's the Druze community. And this one was in a vacation resort that's popular with Arab tourists on the Beirut-Damascus road.

Each one of these bombs is in a shopping district, so these are civilian targets. It's also clear that it is about the tourist season here, which comes in June. And Lebanon depends on those tourist dollars for its damaged economy. Remember, there was a war here last year, last summer at about this time. And so a bomb in that community last night, about 9:00 is when it went off, sends a message to Arab tourists - don't come here. And it's another way to destabilize this country.

INSKEEP: Okay, that's NPR's Deborah Amos covering the story in Beirut. Deborah, thanks very much.

AMOS: Thank you, Steve.

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