Thousands flee siege of refugee camp

Published May 23, 2007

TRIPOLI, Lebanon - Thousands of people flooded out of a besieged Palestinian refugee camp Tuesday night, waving white flags and telling of bodies lying in the streets and inside wrecked houses after three days of fighting between Lebanese troops and Islamic militants.

The nighttime lull that allowed the escape from Nahr el-Bared did not appear to be part of an organized truce - and there was no sign the battle was over. The government of Prime Minister Fuad Saniora said it was determined to uproot Fatah Islam, which took up residence in the camp late last year.

The first clear look inside the camp on Tuesday presented stark reminders of Lebanon's bloody past. Bodies lay in the rubble-strewn streets, some still not removed through three days of fighting. At the approach of a car, terrified Palestinians emerged from hiding, then scrambled for safety when snipers opened fire on them from various directions.

A spontaneous demonstration against the fighting quickly ended when the demonstrators came under fire, leaving two dead and several others wounded.

Soon, the crackle of heavy machine-gun fire in the distance warned of impending attack, and minutes later mortar rounds landed on a U.N. convoy delivering badly needed food and medical supplies. No one was injured in the attack, a U.N. official said, but three damaged trucks were abandoned as aid workers evacuated.

As many as 40, 000 Palestinians have been trapped inside Nahr el-Bared with no water or electricity and dwindling food while the shelling has continued since Sunday.

There was no immediate indication of whether the flight of civilians would give the government a freer hand in bombarding militants holed up in the camp. The army has said its troops were trying to target only militant positions.

"The smell of corpses was everywhere. There was no food, water or electricity, and they were shooting at us, " said Dania Mahmoud Kassem, a 21-year-old university student.

Twenty-nine soldiers and at least 20 militants have been killed since the battle began Sunday in the heaviest internal fighting in Lebanon since the 1975-90 civil war. The number of civilian casualties remained unknown.

Lebanon has asked the United States for $280-million in military assistance to help put down the uprising, the State Department said Tuesday.

Angry Palestinians elsewhere in Lebanon burned tires to protest the military assault, raising the threat of wider unrest in the country's volatile refugee camps. About 215, 000 people live in the 11 camps, which are rife with armed groups and Islamic extremists.

Information from the New York Times was used in this report.