| Lebanese soldiers take position during clashes with the Palestinian Fatah al-Islam group in Tripoli. (AFP)
Nahr al-Bared, Lebanon, May 20 (Reuters): Lebanon’s army today battled al Qaida-linked militants who threatened to open “gates of fire” after clashes which killed 48 people in the country’s bloodiest internal fighting since the 1975-90 civil war.
Nineteen militants and 23 soldiers died in the clashes, which erupted before dawn on the edge of the Nahr al-Bared camp and in the nearby Sunni Muslim city of Tripoli in north Lebanon.
A cabinet minister said the fighting with Fatah al-Islam, which the government says is backed by Syria, seemed timed to try to derail UN moves to set up an international court to try those suspected of carrying out political killings in Lebanon.
Four of the soldiers were killed in an attack on an army patrol in al-Qalamoun just south of Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest city, security sources said.
They said 15 militants were killed when troops stormed buildings they had occupied in Tripoli and four in the camp, home to 40,000 refugees. Medical sources in the camp said six civilians, including two children, were killed and 60 wounded.
The army was blasting militant positions in the camp with tank, mortar and machinegun fire, a military source said. More than 20 soldiers were wounded overall, the source added.
Fatah al-Islam, a Sunni group, said the army had launched an unprovoked attack.
“We warn the Lebanese army of the consequences of continuing the provocative acts against our mujahideen who will open the gates of fire... against (the army) and against the whole of Lebanon,” it said in a statement faxed to Reuters.
The authenticity of the statement could not be verified.
The army had tightened its grip around Nahr al-Bared after four Fatah al-Islam members, all Syrian nationals, were charged with planting bombs on two buses in a Christian area near Beirut in February. Three civilians were killed in those attacks.
Fatah al-Islam is known to have Lebanese, Syrian and Palestinians in its ranks. Its leader is a Palestinian.
Cabinet minister Ahmad Fatfat, speaking in Tripoli, said the violence was part of efforts to sabotage UN moves to set up the international tribunal to try suspects in the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri.
A UN inquiry has implicated Syria and Lebanese officials in the Hariri killing. Damascus denies any involvement.
Syria also denies any link to Fatah al-Islam, whose leader, Shaker al-Abssi, says the group has no organisational links to al Qaida but agrees with its aim of fighting “infidels”.