New Groups Said to Join Fray at Lebanon Camp

Fighting between Lebanon's army and Islamic militants at a Palestinian refugee camp has revived concerns that other armed factions operating in Lebanon, especially Syrian-controlled groups, could enter the fray.

The standoff near Lebanon's northern city of Tripoli has entered its fourth week, with more than 130 people confirmed dead in the fighting. For three weeks, the Lebanese army has used the hills surrounding the camp to rain shells down on the primitive concrete structures in the center of the Nahr al-Bared camp below.

The army said it will continue the artillery barrage and ground operations until the al-Qaida-inspired militants hiding inside are defeated, but the latest reports place Lebanese forces only about 55 yards inside the camp, as army casualties mount.

Even so, the battle has been a boost for the army's reputation, with all Lebanese factions backing the army in its fight against Fatah Islam extremists. But Lebanese officials say other groups have joined Fatah Islam side of the fight, including the Palestinian militia known as the General Command.

"All the other groups that were allied with the Syrians, like the General Command and others, are also fighting with them," said Ghattas Khoury, a government supporter. "I think what will happen is that when we finish with Nahr al-Bared, or soon, they might trigger other incidents."

The General Command was once part of the left-wing Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. It maintains strongholds in the Bekaa Valley and elsewhere. Its leader, Ahmad Jibril, is a former Syrian army captain who directs the group from Damascus, Syria.

Khoury said the army has already encircled one General Command outpost in Bekaa, near the Syrian border. He said there is also "another problem" at al-Naimi, south of Beirut, where there are "tunnels and a camp ... full of General Command fighters."

"So we have two potential security threats in these two areas, and these are outside the Palestinian camps," Khoury said.

Al-Naimi is a hilly area several miles south of the capital, where the General Command is believed to have a stockpile of weapons stored in a network of tunnels that burrow deep into the mountainside.

After passing several checkpoints manned by young men with automatic weapons, a visiting reporter was escorted recently to meet a middle-aged man in green fatigues, who gave his nom de guerre as Abu El-Amin Khaled. He pointed out the ruins of buildings that have been hit over the years by Israeli airstrikes, most recently in last summer's war. The man said "the Zionists are the enemy, not the Lebanese army."

He rejected the claim that General Command is fighting alongside Fatah Islam in the north.

"We are totally against what's happening there," he said. "We're here with an agreement from the Lebanese government from 1969. We protect the camp, and we take the brunt of the force of the Israelis. When they hit, they hit us."

The 1969 Cairo Accord mentioned by Khaled was abolished by former President Amin Gemayel in 1986. The recent Lebanese national dialogue agreed that armed groups such as the General Command should be disarmed.

So far, there has been no move to do that. Analyst Shafiq Masri said given the government's fragile state, it is not surprising that the army is moving at such a slow pace against the Islamist militants in the Nahr al-Bared camp. The army is being asked to win, but not quickly, he said.

If that happened, "the politicians would push them to the next step - depriving the Palestinians outside the camps of their weapons. And then, who knows? Perhaps the third step — depriving Hezbollah," he said.

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