Lebanese authorities arrest 4 Palestinians planning bombings
Army commander: Militant group battling Lebanese troops in refugee camp al-Qaida affiliated
The Associated PressPublished: August 13, 2007
BEIRUT, Lebanon: Lebanon’s army commander said Monday that the militant group battling troops in a northern Palestinian refugee camp was affiliated with al-Qaida, the first high-ranking official to make such a statement.
Some Lebanese government officials had alleged the Fatah Islam group holed up in the Nahr el-Bared camp was created by Syria, a claim denied by Gen. Michel Suleiman.
“This organization is not the creation of Syrian intelligence, nor its it supported by pro-government Lebanese groups,” Suleiman said on the state-run National News Agency. “It is a branch of the al-Qaida organization that was planning to make Lebanon and Palestinian camps a safe haven from which it would launch its operations in Lebanon and outside.”
The previously unheard of group has been fighting Lebanese soldiers in Nahr el-Bared near the northern port city of Tripoli since May 20.
Anti-Syrian Lebanese government officials have accused Damascus of being behind the group in an attempt to destabilize Lebanon following its forced withdrawal from the country in 2005.
Some government opponents, however, have accused pro-government groups of supporting the fundamentalist Sunni group, allegedly to counter the Shiite Hezbollah guerrilla group’s influence in Lebanon.
Speaking to a group of army officers, Suleiman said Monday that the group was a “highly trained military organization” armed with the most modern and sophisticated weapons.
He estimated the number of militants still holed up in the camp to be around 70, accompanied by some 100 women and children believed to be relatives. When the fighting broke out in May, the number of Fatah Islam militants was estimated at 360.
Suleiman said the army was advancing slowly inside the camp to spare the civilians. The military continued its campaign Monday, fighting Fatah Islam at close range inside the camp and pounding the group’s hideouts with artillery, according to the NNA.
Despite an American airlift to provide the Lebanese army with weapons and other equipment during the fighting, Suleiman lamented the lack of sufficient military hardware.
“We received a lot of promises and wishes, some ammunition, but no equipment,” he said.
His comments Monday came as the State Department announced that Fatah Islam has been added to a U.S. international terrorism blacklist under an executive order aimed at cutting off finances to extremist organizations.
The step cuts off Fatah al-Islam from the U.S. financial system and freezes any assets it or its members may have in the United States or under U.S. jurisdiction, the department said in a statement.
A senior security official said Monday that Lebanese authorities have arrested four Palestinians outside a southern refugee camp who allegedly confessed to planning bombings inside the country.
The men also admitted belonging to Fatah Islam, according to the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
News of the arrests, which occurred Friday near the Ein al-Hilweh camp on the outskirts of the southern city of Sidon, came a day after a Syrian Islamist warned that members of Fatah Islam were loose inside Lebanon and would soon launch attacks.
Abu Jandal al-Dimashqi, the self-declared leader of Tawhid and Jihad in Syria, said in an audio tape aired Sunday that some Fatah Islam members had left the northern Nahr el-Bared camp and warned the government to expect a “black day.”
The authenticity of the audio tape could not be verified, but it was posted on a Web site commonly used by Islamic militants.
Based on the confessions of the four Palestinians arrested Friday, authorities are searching for additional Fatah Islam suspects, the senior security official said.
The conflict in Nahr el-Bared is Lebanon’s worst internal violence since the 1975-90 civil war and has claimed the lives of 136 soldiers. An undetermined number of militants — at least 60 — and more than 20 civilians have also died in the fighting.
Court officials have said that some 60 Fatah Islam members have been arrested since the fighting began and are being questioned about their involvement in terrorist acts and possession and use of weapons and explosives.