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More Flee as Cease-Fire Holds at Lebanon Camp

A shaky cease-fire between Lebanese soldiers and Islamic militants holed up in a Palestinian refugee camp allowed hundreds of civilians Wednesday to reach safety.

The refugees were caught in crossfire between the troops and members of the Fatah Islam group inside the camp near the northern city of Tripoli. The army fired artillery and machine guns into the camp as the militants put up a sporadic defense.

About 15,000 — nearly half of camp Nahr el-Bared's residents — fled late at night when the fighting stopped, relief officials said. About 1,000 fled Wednesday morning.

They packed into cars, in buses or fled on foot. Most had not eaten and had had no water for days. Many were in shock. Some were crying. Most had no idea where they would find shelter as long as the fighting continues in and around their homes.

Mainstream Palestinian groups backed the Lebanese government and suspended a four-decade-long ban on the Lebanese army entering the camp, clearing the way for a final confrontation. Lebanese officials defend the army's approach, despite the high toll on civilians.

"It was horrible for the Palestinians living in the camp, really horrible, and I'm really sorry that it happened," said Misba Adhad, who represents Tripoli in the Lebanese parliament.

But he says Lebanon has to crush the radical movement that challenged the army and the Lebanese state. Some of the militants have been arrested and have given up details of their organization, Adhad said.

The group has members from Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan and Sudan, who established a base in the camp a year ago, Adhad said. The confrontation began early Sunday morning after members of Fattah al Islam attacked a Lebanese army post outside of the camp.

Most of Nahr el-Bared's misplaced residents have moved to a nearby Palestinian refugee camp at Beddawi, where U.N. and other relief officials provided shelter, mattresses, food and water. But thousands of civilians remain inside the camp, many too weak or too old to move.

Those fleeing reported scenes of destruction with bodies littering the camp's streets. Officials said the bodies of at least 20 civilians had been retrieved from inside the camp, but International Committee of the Red Cross said it has no accurate figures on casualties.

At the hospital, the wounded filled the wards, some two a bed. Those who didn't need emergency care were sent to a local school. Dr. Hassan Suliman, a Palestinian cardiologist who runs a clinic inside Nahr el-Bared, drove out in an ambulance this morning after working without a break for three days.

"How many hour I sleep — one hour. I eat once and sleep one hour, not because of work but because of bombing, too," Suliman said.

Lebanese human rights groups have charged that the army's shelling was indiscriminant and endangered civilian lives.

A relief convoy came under fire early Wednesday as U.N. workers tried to deliver food and water to residents in Nahr el-Bared.

John Holmes, the U.N. undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, called the attack on the U.N. Relief and Works Agency convoy "outrageous and completely unacceptable."

Suliman said a U.N. convoy was hit by a Lebanese army mortar shell.

"The bomb is 100 percent from the army — one bomb, two killed and seven wounded, I think," Suliman said.

The Lebanese army still surrounds the Nahr al-Bared camp. The remnants of the Fattah al Islam group, said to share the ideology of al-Qaida, vow to fight to the death.

The military's attack at the camp has raised fears that the fighting could destabilize Lebanon and push it back into civil war. The U.S.-backed government already faces a domestic political crisis, with the Hezbollah militant group campaigning for its removal.

Lebanese security officials accuse Syria of using Fatah Islam to destabilize Lebanon, a charge Damascus denies. Syria controlled Lebanon for decades until growing street demonstrations by Lebanese and international pressure forced it to withdraw its troops after Hariri's assassination.

— From NPR reports and the Associated Press

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

United States & World Morning EditionAll Things Considered
Deborah Amos covers the Middle East for NPR News. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.