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Foreign Military Aid Arrives in Lebanon

Shipments of foreign military aid have begun arriving in Lebanon as a tense standoff continues at a Palestinian refugee camp in the north. A ceasefire has been in effect for three days, but government troops and Islamic militants appear to be preparing for renewed fighting. VOA Correspondent Challiss McDonough has more from our Middle East bureau in Cairo.

Several planeloads of ammunition and other military supplies landed at Beirut airport, arriving in transport planes from the United States, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates.

Lebanese and western military officials say supplies were ordered from the U.S. before the fighting broke out near the northern city of Tripoli, but the government asked for the deliveries to be expedited after the violence erupted.

A shaky ceasefire took hold late Tuesday, although there have been sporadic outbreaks of gunfire.

Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora on Thursday vowed to "root out" terrorists. His government has accused Fatah al-Islam militants of links to al-Qaida.

The militant group's leaders, barricaded inside the the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp, say they will never surrender. The army has sent troop reinforcements to Tripoli and has been fortifying positions around the refugee camp, and many in the area are bracing for fighting to resume.

At the same time, the government has been negotiating with leaders of various mainstream Palestinian factions in an effort to find a way to contain Fatah al-Islam while avoiding another direct confrontation between the group and the military.

Some analysts are concerned about the possible implications of a military solution. Sami Baroudi is a political science professor at the Lebanese American University.

"Even if you had a political decision to deal with the situation militarily, I think the losses would really, really be huge," he said. "And anyway, we don't want Lebanon to sort of go the path of Algeria and to establish this sort of hostile relationship between a variety of armed groups and the Lebanese army. We're not ready for that."

From the start, there have been fears about the violence spreading to other regions. Fatah al-Islam is not the only armed group in Lebanon's 12 Palestinian refugee camps. The group claims it has "sleeper cells" in other camps, waiting to join the fighting if it breaks out again.

The Lebanese government has been weakened by a political standoff with the opposition over the last six months. Prime Minister Siniora and others in his ruling coalition have called for unity in support of the Lebanese army as it fights Fatah al-Islam. But the arrival of large amounts of U.S. military aid is likely to be unpopular with the opposition, which has long accused the Siniora government of being too close to the West.

The U.S. pledged $40 million in military aid to Lebanon, partly in the hopes that it would help the Lebanese government disarm the Shi'ite group Hezbollah, which is the last of Lebanon's major political factions to retain weapons after the civil war.

The Lebanese government has denied media reports that it had previously supplied Fatah al-Islam and other Sunni militant groups to serve as a counterweight to Hezbollah.

Fatah al-Islam is a Sunni Muslim extremist group accused of having ties to al-Qaida, although it is not clear whether those ties extend beyond basic ideology. Journalists who have interviewed its members in the Nahr al-Bared camp say most of them do not speak the Palestinian dialect of Arabic, but instead appear to be from North Africa, the Gulf states and Lebanon itself.

Palestinian refugee camps have been off-limits to Lebanese authorities since 1969 under an international agreement with the Palestinian leadership. Human rights organizations and Palestinian groups have criticized the army for using artillery to pound militant strongholds in a heavily populated area.

Since the ceasefire took effect late Tuesday, thousands of people have been leaving the camp to seek shelter elsewhere, mainly in another refugee camp nearby. But the United Nations says there are still roughly 15,000 civilians inside Nahr al-Bared. Relief agencies say the precarious security situation has kept them from getting supplies to the remaining residents in the camp.