Lebanon issues ultimatum to refugee camp militants

Published May 24, 2007

NAHR EL-BARED REFUGEE CAMP, Lebanon - Lebanon's defense minister issued an ultimatum Wednesday to Islamic militants barricaded in this Palestinian refugee camp to surrender or face a military onslaught.

Fighters from the al-Qaida-inspired Fatah Islam militant group vowed not to give up and to fight any Lebanese assault.

Storming the Nahr el-Bared camp - a densely built-up town of narrow streets on the Mediterranean coast - could mean rough urban fighting for Lebanese troops and further death and destruction for the thousands of civilians who remain inside.

It could also have grave repercussions elsewhere across troubled Lebanon, sparking unrest among the country's estimated 400, 000 Palestinian refugees. Already some of the other refugee camps in Lebanon, which are rife with armed groups, are seething with anger over the fighting.

But the military appeared determined to uproot Fatah Islam after three days of heavy bombardment of the camp, sparked by an attack by the militants on Lebanese troops Sunday following a raid on its fighters in the nearby northern city of Tripoli.

"Preparations are seriously under way to end the matter, " Defense Minister Elias Murr said. "The army will not negotiate with a group of terrorists and criminals. Their fate is arrest, and if they resist the army, death."

A militant who gave his pseudonym as Abu Hureira warned the troops would "face a massacre" if they attempt to enter Nahr el-Bared. Abu Hureira said the fighters number more than 500.

Around half of Nahr el-Bared's 31, 000 residents have fled since a halt in the fighting Tuesday night, but thousands remain behind, either too ill to travel or unwilling to abandon their homes.

Murr said 30 Lebanese soldiers were killed in the three days of fighting, along with as many as 60 militants, including fighters from Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and Saudi Arabia. But a top Fatah Islam leader said only 10 of his men were killed.

At U.N. headquarters in New York, the Security Council condemned the attacks by Fatah Islam "in the strongest possible terms, " saying they constitute an attempt to undermine the country's stability, security and sovereignty.