Lebanese Air Force Attacks Camp

Lebanese military forces continued their barrage of a Palestinian refugee camp where Islamic militants are hiding out. For the first time, Lebanon used its air force to attack the stronghold of Fatah al-Islam.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

Heavy shelling continued today in a besieged Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon. Militants from the Fatah al-Islam group remained holed up in the camp. They say negotiations are at a dead end. The Lebanese army continues to pound their positions and there are concerns about civilian casualties inside the camp.

NPR's Deborah Amos spent the day just outside the camp near Tripoli, and she joins me now. Is the army making preparations now for its final push into the camp?

DEBORAH AMOS: It seems that they are. The fighting today was very intense. We saw smoke rising all day from the camp. And you got a body rattle(ph) from all the artillery. For the first time, the Lebanese military used helicopters to slam the camp as well as naval bombardments. The Lebanese army lost six soldiers in the last 36 hours and they were commando units, who were outside the camp, waiting to go in.

And then the strange atmosphere of urban warfare, we shared an open bakery with them - aide workers, journalists and the commandos who were waiting for the order, if there is to be house-to-house fighting inside that camp.

ELLIOTT: Why is this so hard for the Lebanese army?

AMOS: There's a couple of reasons for that, one military and one political, and I'll start with the military. It's the less complicated of the two. And that is, this army fell apart in the 1980s during the civil war and reconstituted itself. This is its first big test. In the past couple of days, they have gotten extra American military supplies, new ammunition, which they needed after the first three days of the bombardments. Plus, they are facing a very formidable enemy.

These men are very well armed. Many of them are veterans of fighting in Iraq. They have had time to booby trap their positions. They have used suicide attacks before, so taking them on will be tough. Then there are the political considerations by a long-standing agreement. The Lebanese security services do not go in to Palestinian refugee camps. Those are policed by Palestinians. So it's a huge precedent to go into the camp.

The Lebanese army seems committed to do that. Palestinian groups here have given them the tentative green light to do it, but it could cause turmoil in other Palestinian refugee camps.

So they'd been very hesitant. And then the third issue is civilians. The numbers are unclear, Palestinian groups say there are about 3,000, others say there are 8,000. A Palestinian commander inside the camp said the day that he had gathered them all in one section of the camp, they were building a berm, he said, to keep themselves separated from the militants of Fatah al-Islam and to make sure that they don't try to join those civilians to get out of the camp when and if this is over.

ELLIOTT: Why have they not left? Why are the civilians building themselves in?

AMOS: There's a lot of reasons for that. For one thing, as I said, Lebanese security services don't go into Palestinian refugee camps. So if you commit a crime in Lebanon, you can hop in to one of those camps and you can hide out. So there are people who are wanted who are inside the camp, they don't want to come out.

There has been looting inside this refugee camp since the vast population left. So some, especially men in the family said, okay, wives and children out, but I'm going to stay here and protect my house. These people are very poor. To lose that is to lose everything.

And then for many of them, they were refugees from 1948. They moved here from, or forced to move here from what was then Palestine. They've been refugees once; they don't want to do it again. There are the old and there are the infirmed who also can't be brought out. And so that leaves the population who are at risk with this fighting.

And there were reports tonight that there were civilian casualties. The army was not letting any of the ambulances into the camp to evacuate anybody.

ELLIOTT: NPR's Deborah Amos in Beirut. Thank you.

AMOS: Thank you.

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