Lebanese government declares itself victorious over militants
After over a month of fighting, government officials say they have "destroyed" all Fatah al-Islam positions, only "clean up" operations remain.
Despite the Lebanese government's assertion that it has "crushed" Fatah al-Islam militants in the north, unease persists amid sporadic violence and concerns that the battle may have deepened rifts between Lebanon's Shiites and Sunnis.
According to an Associated Press report, Lebanese Defense Minister Elias Murr said that the Nahr Al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp, where the fighting took place, will remain "a theater of operations and under siege" until Fatah al-Islam completely surrenders. Mr. Murr demanded the body of the militant group's leader, Shaker al-Abssi, reportedly killed in the fighting, as proof that the Al Qaeda-inspired organization was ready to surrender.
"The Lebanese army has destroyed all Fatah Islam positions," Defense Minister Elias Murr told the private Lebanese Broadcasting Television Thursday night. ``The army is combing the area. This terrorist organization has been uprooted.''
Sheik Mohammed Haj of the Palestinian Scholars Association, a mediator who met with the militants' leaders during the week, said that Fatah Islam ``has declared a cease-fire and will comply with the Lebanese army's decision to end military operations.''
He said the militants would abide by conditions set by the army to end the fighting, but did not elaborate. TV stations and newspapers said the deal included handing over Fatah Islam's wounded and dismantling the group.
As gunfire quiets down in Nahr Al-Bared, some of the more than 31,000 Palestinian refugees are demanding that the Lebanese Army allow them to return to their homes, reports Reuters. Dozens of Palestinian students from Nahr Al-Bared who fled to the nearby Beddawi refugee camp protested in front of the UN school there, calling for a prompt return to their homes.
"We're hearing that the fighting has stopped but there are still some explosions," Hind Abdulal, a 35-year-old mother of 10, told Reuters at the nearby Beddawi camp where she and her family, like thousands of refugees, had taken shelter.
"We're ready to go and stay on the sand instead of staying here (but) we know there are mines and booby traps," she said.
A 1969 agreement prohibits Lebanese forces from entering any of the country's 12 refugee camps, complicating the effort to build a lasting stability. The past month's fighting took place in Nahr Al-Bared neighborhoods constructed outside the camp's official boundaries, built to accommodate the Palestinian population that has expanded considerably since it first arrived to the country in 1948. However, Agence France-Presse reports that a Palestinian force may be required to police inside the camp.
(Mohammed al-Hajj, spokesman for a group of Palestinian clerics) had said the "deployment of a Palestinian force between the two sides in the old camp is imperative if the fighting is to end," and that the army talks were expected "to fix the details of setting up this force" that would protect remaining refugees in the camp and prevent militants from escaping.
At least 75 Lebanese soldiers, 60 Fatah al-Islam miltants, and 20 civlians were killed in the fighting. Al Jazeera reports that although both sides may be moving towards peace, it would still be premature to call this a victory for the Lebanese Army.
Zeina Khodr, Al Jazeera's correspondent in northern Lebanon, said: "From where we are standing we are not hearing any resistance, it is just the Lebanese army pounding positions and detonating bombs.
"It is very early to say that this is a victory, very early to say that this crisis is over."
Even if the fighting has died down, the battle has fueled regional and sectarian feuds. The BBC reports that the Lebanese government believes that Syrian intelligence supported Fatah al-Islam to destabilize the country, an allegation that Syria denies. Relations between the nations remain tense.
Syria has closed a border crossing in the north-east of Lebanon for "security" reasons.
Damascus closed two other crossings when fighting first broke out in the camp, also for safety reasons. Only the Masnaa crossing remains open.
Many in Lebanon also blame Syria for the recent bombing that killed Lebanese Sunni MP Walid Eido. The Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram Weekly reports that Sunnis expressed their rage at the MP's funeral.
Adding to widespread fears of a "hot summer" of civil unrest, an angry mob shouted sectarian slogans at the Sunni parliamentarian's funeral. "The blood of the Sunnis is boiling", they roared, as they chanted for Iraq's Saddam Hussein, a symbol of the Sunni strongman since his execution in December.
As Lebanon begins to crackdown on other Islamic militants throughout the country, most of which are Sunni, the Los Angeles Times reports that many fear Sunni rage may boil over.
The community has been fractured by a battle between the Lebanese army and an extremist Sunni group inspired by Al Qaeda, and an ensuing government crackdown against Islamists. More radical Sunnis are facing off against moderate supporters of the U.S.-backed government.
"We're beginning to see cracks in the Sunni community," said Hilal Khashan, a political science professor at the American University of Beirut. Khashan, like the Sunni-led government, charged that Syria had helped the Fatah al Islam militant group establish itself in a Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon in order to create instability.
"Syria is trying to cause the Sunni sect to splinter," he said.