BEIRUT -- A new front erupted in Lebanon's simmering political conflict yesterday in the northern city of Tripoli, where running battles between the Lebanese army and a radical new Palestinian organization said to have ties to al-Qaida killed at least 39 people.
In the worst internal fighting since the end of Lebanon's civil war 17 years ago, the army battled militants throughout the day in the streets of the port city and on the edges of the Palestinian refugee camp Nahr el-Bared, which late last year fell under the control of a radical group calling itself Fateh al-Islam.
The fighting started when Lebanese soldiers pursued a group of men suspected of involvement in an overnight bank robbery to a Tripoli apartment building that turned out to be occupied by dozens of Fatah al-Islam fighters.
As the army laid siege to the building, militants broke out of the nearby refugee camp and attacked army positions around it, seizing at least one position and prompting the Lebanese army to open fire on the camp with tank fire and artillery.
The army said 22 of its soldiers were killed, and news agencies reported the deaths of at least 17 militants. There were reports that an unknown number of civilians died in the bombardment of the camp, home to about 31,000 Palestinian refugees.
By nightfall, the violence appeared to have subsided and the army had restored control. But the ferocity of the unexpected battle pointed to the dangers inherent in the six-month-old political standoff between pro-and anti-government factions and revived memories of Lebanon's brutal civil war, which initially flared as a battle between Christian militias and powerful armed Palestinian groups.
Lebanese government officials immediately accused Syria of using Fateh al-Islam to stir up trouble just as the United Nations prepares to press forward with an international tribunal to try those suspected of involvement in the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
"There is someone trying to create chaos to say to world public opinion, 'Look, if the tribunal is established, there will be security trouble in Lebanon,'" Ahmed Fatfat, Lebanon's minister of youth and sports, told the pro-government Future TV.
A U.N. inquiry has implicated Syrian officials in the killing, but efforts to create a tribunal have been thwarted by the crisis paralyzing the government since the radical Shiite Hezbollah movement led a walkout of pro-Syrian factions from the Cabinet in November. Hezbollah supporters have since been camped out in downtown Beirut in an effort to force the U.S.-backed government of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora to give its allies a greater share of power.
The government believes the power play is part of an attempt by Syria and its allies to block the formation of the tribunal. Last week, the U.S., France and Britain drew up a draft U.N. resolution that would use the U.N.'s Chapter 7 powers to force the creation of the court, thereby overriding the need for Lebanon's paralyzed government to approve it.
Syria has denied any involvement in Fateh al-Islam and mainstream Palestinian groups also have disavowed it.
The emergence of Fateh al-Islam, a radical Sunni group, adds a new layer of complexity to the crisis. It surfaced in the Nahr el-Bared camp in November, dislodging the pro-Syrian Palestinian group Fateh Intifada that previously controlled the camp. Arab journalists who have visited the camp have reported that the group appears to include foreign militants from across the Arab world, including Syrians, Yemenis and Saudi Arabians.
Its leader is Shaker al-Abssi, a Palestinian convicted in Jordan for his involvement in the 2002 assassination of U.S. diplomat Laurence Foley in Amman. He is believed to have had close ties to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of the al-Qaida in Iraq movement who was killed by U.S. forces last year.
Liz Sly writes for the Chicago Tribune.