Battle Ends at Refugee Camp in Lebanon

The Lebanese army is finally in full control of a Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon after a battle that lasted more than 100 days. Lebanon's prime minister broke the news in an address to the nation.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

From NPR News, this ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Debbie Elliott.

Lebanon's army finally took control of a Palestinian refugee camp today after a long battle against Islamist militants there.

NPR's Deborah Amos in Beirut examines the significance of today's victory over Fatah al-Islam.

DEBORAH AMOS: Prime Minister Fouad Siniora thanked the army on television. The Lebanese had been celebrating for hours, waving flags and cheering soldiers on the street.

The final chapter of this deadly fight began early this morning. Not all the details are clear, but according to Lebanese officials some of the militants tried to break out of the camp with help from supporters from outside. Some were killed, some surrendered, it was over. The army declared the battle won.

More than 30,000 civilians had been evacuated from the camp and housed in another refugee camp nearby. The prime minister vowed to rebuild the ruined homes and reminded Lebanese this was not a fight against Palestinians but against terrorists.

Fatah al-Islam had proved to be a tough opponent, holding down the army for more than a 100 days. But the army has come out of the fight with wide public support. The U.S. rushed military supplies to Lebanon's under-equipped military and stepped up military aid.

Fatah al-Islam surfaced in November of 2006. Shaker al-Abssi, its leader, had links with Islamists in Iraq. His supporters were from all over the Arab world, men who had fought in Iraq and followed Abssi to Lebanon where he said he wanted to reform the Palestinians and fight Israel.

Last week, Abssi negotiated with the army to evacuate his family. He apparently died in the final assault today. It was reported his body was identified among the dead. Troops are still hunting for some militants believed to have escaped.

The main battle with one faction of militant Islam has ended, but the war is hardly won. Even today's victory raises troubling questions. Fatah al-Islam had outside help in the final escape attempt. Are there still supporters in the country? How did Fatah al-Islam get to Lebanon? Who supported them? Those questions have not been adequately answered.

Deborah Amos, NPR News, Beirut.

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