A two-day truce at a Palestinian refugee camp was broken Thursday, when heavy gunfire was exchanged between the Lebanese military and Islamist militants who are refusing to leave the camp in northern Lebanon.
The Lebanese government is warning the Fatah Islam group of an imminent assault if its members do not leave. More than 10,000 Palestinian refugees have already left the camp, but thousands more remain inside.
Both the Lebanese Army and Islamists militants inside the camp had stopped shooting and shelling for a while, after heavy fighting earlier this week.
While the Lebanese defense minister warned militants to surrender or face a military assault, Lebanon's prime minister vowed Thursday to protect what he called "our Palestinian brothers."
"We will not target them," he said.
The presence of Palestinian civilians in the Nahr el-Bared camp led the government to allow negotiations with the militants Thursday, said cabinet minister Khalil Makkawi.
"What is happening on the ground is that the Palestinian factions in Lebanon are making dialogue with them to convince them to surrender," Makkawi said.
But the ceasefire had broken down late Thursday. Although tracer fire lit up the sky, coming from inside the camp and from the Lebanese army, there was no heavy shelling of the camp.
The Lebanese army had called for re-enforcements around the camp. Makkawi said the negotiations could not go on for long. Soon, he said, the government would order the army to move against the militants.
He said the militants killed 27 soldiers "in cold blood."
The fact that Fatah Islam beheaded four Lebanese soldiers in the first hours of the confrontation has not been widely reported in the Lebanese media. Government sources say it's been suppressed because the gruesome attack on the army, one of the last institutions in the country with widespread support, could inflame the public.
'Whatever the Price'
On the streets of Tripoli in northern Lebanon on Thursday, some young men applauded as army tanks drove by. Ali Hamza said he is impatient; he wants the army to finish the job.
"The Lebanese people suffered a lot from these terrorist people, so we wish to get rid of these people as soon as possible," Hamza said. "Whatever the price, even if they were murdered, we don't care."
According to Lebanese sources, the government is divided over how to resolve the crisis. Because Palestinian civilians are at risk, the army is reluctant to enter the camp, and the militants have vowed to fight to the death.
Makkawi said if negotiations fail, the government will take action: "Either they surrender or they have to be eliminated."