Lebanon battles Palestinian fundamentalists, 31 dead


Tripoli (Lebanon) : Lebanon's army continued Sunday to battle an Al Qaeda-linked Palestinian group which has vowed to open the "gates of fire" against the Lebanese army after it killed 10 of the militants. The clashes in northern Lebanon so far have killed 31 people, Lebanese security sources said.

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According to a high-ranking Lebanese police sources, Abu Yazen, the third in command in the Fatah al-Islam group, was killed along with his right-hand man Saddam Dib.

"We believe that Abu Yazen masterminded the bombing of Feb 13, 2007 in north-east Beirut along with Dib," the source said.

The Lebanese army had tightened its grip around Nahr al-Bared camp since authorities charged Fatah al-Islam members with two bus bombings in a Christian area near Beirut in February. Three civilians were killed by the bombs and more than 20 wounded.

Lebanese police are now checking if Saddam Dib is actually Saddam al Haj Dib, the brother of Yossef al Haj Dib, who is wanted by the German authorities for a train bombing in Germany last July.

Saddam was still at large as the trial of his 21-year-old brother, Jihad Hamad, 20, and four other men started last month in Lebanon. Al Haj Dib, who is in custody in a Berlin jail, is being tried in absentia in Lebanon.

The clashes in northern Lebanon so far have killed 10 militants and 21 others, 13 of them Lebanese soldiers, Lebanese security sources said.

The army arrested around four member of the Fatah al-Islam group who were locked in a fierce battle with the army inside the southern port city of Tripoli.

Fatah al-Islam, a Sunni Muslim group with links to the Al Qaeda terror network, said the army had launched an unprovoked attack.

"We warn the Lebanese army of the consequences of continuing the provocative acts against our strugglers who will open the gates of fire … against (the army) and against the whole of Lebanon," it said in a statement.

It was Lebanon's worst internal fighting since the end of the Lebanese civil war in 1990.

The fighting was triggered when security forces raided homes in Tripoli to arrest suspects from the Fatah al-Islam group accused of robbing a bank a day earlier.

Lebanese anti-Syrian MP Walid Eddo said the fighting with the group, which the government says is backed by Syria, seemed timed to try to derail UN moves to set up an international court to investigate the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri.

A UN probe has implicated Syria and Lebanese officials in the Hariri killing. Damascus denies any involvement in the killing. It also denies any link to Fatah al-Islam.

Syria announced Sunday that it has closed two of its border crossings into northern Lebanon because of the security situation there, according to an official Syrian statement. The main Masnaa crossing in east Lebanon remained open.

Government minister Ahmed Fatfat, who is from Tripoli, told Lebanon's pro-government Future TV: "There is someone trying to create security chaos to say to world public opinion: 'Look, if the tribunal is established, there will be security trouble in Lebanon'."

The United States, France and Britain last week circulated a draft UN resolution that would impose the court on Lebanon.

Under a 1969 Arab agreement, the Lebanese army is not allowed to enter into Palestinian camps, and all security inside the camp is in the hands of Palestinian factions.

According to Lebanese security sources, Fatah al-Islam was formed by fighters of the former pro-Syrian Fatah Uprising group.

The sources said the group is backed by the Syrian intelligence forces and is using bank robberies in northern Lebanon as a source of funding.

Fatah al-Islam statements have appeared on fundamentalist websites known to publish Al Qaeda statements.