Lebanon's 'Wild' North Smolders Beneath Calm
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
The conflict in northern Lebanon escalated today with heavy exchanges of artillery and machine gunfire. Lebanese army tanks and armored vehicles tightened their siege of a Palestinian refugee camp on the outskirts of Tripoli. A group of Islamist militants has been holding positions there for almost two weeks. Many of those men are Arabs from outside Lebanon, including some who fought in Iraq.
As NPR's Deborah Amos reports, that worries the Lebanese government.
DEBORAH AMOS: The Tabeni(ph) neighborhood in Tripoli is crowded and poor, fertile ground for Sunni Muslim groups who embrace radical ideologies. The direct confrontation with the militants of Fatah al-Islam on the outskirts of Tripoli is a distant rumble here. But what happens there is reflected on these streets.
Interviews in an open-air pool hall, a grocery store and an Internet cafe shows the complexities of Lebanon's radical community. Ali Sayun, a tattooed mechanic, says he is not particularly religious, but he knows this neighborhood. There are radicals here, he says, Lebanese radicals. But they support the army, he insists, in the fight with Fatah al-Islam.
Mr. ALI SAYUN (Mechanic): (Through translator) There's nobody here with Fatah al-Islam. We do have religious guys here, but these guys that came in, they're from Saudi, they're from outside the country and nobody is with them.
AMOS: But some in Tripoli did join Fatah al-Islam. In the first few days of the confrontation, two Lebanese members blew themselves up in suicide attacks rather than surrender to the army. The government is taking no chances, rounding up suspected extremists. The grocer next door to the pool hall says he was arrested then released. That's all he will say and he won't give his name.
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AMOS: Next to the grocer is an Internet cafe, a sparse space with a dozen computer terminals. Some young men watch a soccer match while others type intently in online chat rooms. Twenty-one year old Ezedin Rajef(ph) owns this place. He says the government is risking a backlash here with all these arrests.
Mr. EZEDIN RAJEF (Businessman): It's the government. They're catching all of the Muslim boys or men that are religious.
AMOS: Do you know some of them that are being arrested?
Mr. RAJEF: Yes, I know a lot of them. There was one of them - they took him for eight days. They tortured him very, very much, and after eight days, they let him go. They told him sorry.
AMOS: There's no way to confirm the story, but government officials do confirm the sweep. Two hundred picked up so far with charges that range from forming militant cells, arms smuggling and having contact with al-Qaida. As for the Internet cafe owner, Ezedin Rajef, he supports the army and he shows off a video on his cell phone.
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AMOS: It is a mini movie, an intense gun battle. There are local men, he says, who killed one of the Fatah al-Islam gunmen. It's an image that's traded among young men on the street.
How do they know he was Fatah al-Islam?
Mr. RAJEF: They saw him. He had a weapon, an automatic rifle, and they saw him. They knew he was from Fatah al-Islam.
AMOS: But the rest of the group remains hold up in a Nahr al-Bared refugee camp. It will take more than shelling to flush them out, says Sheikh Omar Bakri(ph), who runs an Islamic library in Tripoli.
Sheikh OMAR BAKRI: You see, I don't think it's going to be a peaceful end. Got to be a dramatical end. Surprise, surprise - they fight until death. That's mean those people have you see new type of culture. This is al-Qaida, if you don't believe.
AMOS: Bakri says he's also not surprised Palestinian mediators designated by the government failed to broker a deal. They don't speak the same radical religious language, explains Bakri.
Mr. BAKRI: They don't take advice except from their own kind. Do you think people like this, they're going to give up themselves really to the Lebanese army? I don't believe so.
AMOS: Late today, a Lebanese television station reported that the leader of Fatah al-Islam had been seriously wounded and may be dead, but there's no confirmation of the report.
Deborah Amos, NPR News, Beirut.