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Fight against militants agitates Lebanon's troubled camps

Poverty and hopelessness have helped foster the emergence of radical Islamist groups in Lebanon's 12 Palestinian refugee camps.

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As battles between the Lebanese Army and Islamic militants from Fatah al-Islam entered a third day, dozens of residents of this embattled Palestinian camp seized a chance Tuesday to flee.

They waved white sheets from cars as snipers still fired at them during a brief cease-fire. "The situation is very miserable," screamed Mouein Safadi as he reached an Army post. "There are many, many people dead under the rubble. We have no water, no food, no electricity."

Ahmad Afif, driving a battered red Renault filled with his family, said the militants "are not Palestinians. They are Syrians, Iraqis, Afghanis. What do they want from us?"

The violence that began Sunday – as the Army grew determined to root out an estimated 100 militants with suspected ties to Al Qaeda – is the latest unrest within the country's Palestinian refugee camps, which have a history of spawning both secular and Islamist militants.

And as Palestinians in some of Lebanon's 11 other camps protested the government offensive in Nahr al-Bared, the unrest here threatens to spread to an estimated 210,000 refugees who live in slumlike camps where only hopelessness and poverty seem plentiful. On Tuesday, as fierce fighting continued between the militants and the Army, angry Palestinians in other camps set car tires ablaze.

Outside the camp in Tripoli, the country's second-largest city, a militant blew himself up when confronted by security forces. In all, at least 29 soldiers and 20 militants have been killed in the three-day battle.

If the violence, already the worst internal strife since the 1975-90 civil war, does continue, it will indeed threaten an already vulnerable government that faces a growing domestic challenge from an opposition movement led by Syrian- and Iranian-backed Hizbullah. The Lebanese government has accused Syria of backing Fatah al-Islam as well, a charge that the Syrians deny.

Most of Lebanon's refugee camps have existed since 1948, when Israel was established and tens of thousands of Palestinians fled to neighboring countries.

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