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Lebanon declares victory in war on militants

Reuters | June 21, 2007
Nadim Ladki

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Lebanon declared victory on Thursday in its 33-day war against an al Qaeda-inspired militant group at a Palestinian refugee camp and said its military operation there was over.

The fighting between the army and militants holed up in the Nahr al-Bared camp in north Lebanon was the worst outbreak of internal violence in the country since the end of its civil war 17 years ago and cost the lives of at least 166 people.

"I can tell the Lebanese that as of now the military operation in Nahr al-Bared is finished," Defence Minister Elias al-Murr told Lebanon's LBC television.

"All the positions of the terrorists have been crushed," he said, adding that the surviving members of Fatah al-Islam had pulled back from the edges of Nahr al-Bared into civilian areas deep in the camp.

"I dedicate this victory to the Lebanese people ... all of the Lebanese people."

Murr said the army would maintain a siege around the camp until all Fatah al-Islam militants surrendered, including their leader Shaker al-Abssi.

"They have to surrender ... It's not good enough to say Abssi was killed, if he is dead, give us the body," he said. Murr said the army was continuing some mopping up operations and defusing mines and booby traps at the outskirts of the camp.

A source at a grouping of Palestinian Muslim clerics, which had tried to mediate an end to the battles, said Fatah al-Islam official Shahine Shahine told the mediators the group welcomed the Lebanese announcement of an end to the operation.

"He told us that Fatah al-Islam declares a ceasefire," the source told Reuters.

SPORADIC SHOOTING

Witnesses said only very light exchanges of machinegun fire continued at the camp after Murr's announcement following a day of sporadic clashes.

The fighting had been concentrated in areas held by the militants on the outskirts of the camp. Security forces are barred from entering Lebanon's 12 Palestinian refugee camps by a 1969 agreement.

The battle was the worst internal conflict since the 1975-1990 civil war. At least 166 people, including 76 soldiers, more than 60 militants and 30 civilians, have been killed in the fighting, which also destroyed much of the camp.

The army says Fatah al-Islam started the conflict on May 20 by attacking its posts. The group, which includes fighters from across the Arab world, says it has been acting in self-defence.

Murr said in a newspaper interview published earlier that some of the fighters arrested were members of al Qaeda. "There is a section of them which belongs directly to al Qaeda," he told An-Nahar newspaper.

Fatah al-Islam has said it has no organizational ties to al Qaeda but shares its militant ideology.

Most of the camp's 40,000 residents fled during the early days of the fighting, which has destroyed much of the sprawling maze of alleyways on the Mediterranean seafront.

Neighboring Syria on Wednesday closed one of its border crossings into northern Lebanon.

Syria has closed three crossings into north Lebanon, citing security concerns since the start of the Nahr al-Bared fighting. Anti-Syrian Lebanese leaders say Fatah al-Islam is a tool of Syrian intelligence. Both Syria and the group deny any links.

 

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