Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora vowed in an address to the nation on Thursday his government would crush the Islamic militants who are battling the army in a Palestinian refugee camp. The U.N. says half the camp's residents have fled, but despite a two-day ceasefire, there are still concerns that the violence could start up again. VOA Correspondent Challiss McDonough has more from our Middle East bureau in Cairo.
As a shaky ceasefire appeared to be largely holding for a second day, Prime Minister Siniora vowed to defeat the Fatah al-Islam militants barricaded inside the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp. He said Lebanon "will not surrender to the terrorists."
"We will work to root out and finish off terrorism. But we will also work harder than ever to embrace and protect our brothers in the camps," he said.
The prime minister took pains to reassure Palestinian civilians that the army is not targeting them.
The Lebanese army has been criticized for using artillery in such a heavily populated area. Roughly 30,000 people live in Nahr al-Bared, which is near the northern port city of Tripoli. Palestinians living in other refugee camps in Lebanon have burned car tires and protested in the streets against the shelling of Nahr al-Bared, raising fears that the unrest could spread.
Human Rights Watch researcher Nadim Houry says his organization is not challenging the government and the army's goal of defeating Fatah al-Islam, only their means of achieving it.
"Now the prime minister today but also other politicians have always said the army is taking all precautions to protect Palestinian civilians," said Houry. "But what we see in practice is that these precautions are clearly not sufficient. And our main concern, again, is the type of weaponry being used. And as long as there is shelling of the camp by tanks or by artillery, we will not be satisfied that these civilians are going to be protected."
The U.N. says about half of the civilians living in the camp have left to take shelter elsewhere, but more than 15,000 people remain in Nahr al-Bared.
Houry says Human Rights Watch and relief agencies remain concerned about the humanitarian conditions inside the camp, where there is still no electricity and very limited water supplies, and about the possibility that fighting could erupt again.
The Lebanese army has been reinforcing its positions outside the camp, and Fatah al-Islam militants inside have been hunkering down and vowing not to surrender. Reports from Nahr al-Bared indicate that the group is well supplied and claims to be ready for a long siege.
Elsewhere in Lebanon, a bomb exploded Wednesday night in the mainly Druze village of Aley, a popular getaway spot in the mountains near Beirut. It was the third bombing since Sunday in the Beirut area.
The new foreign minister of France, Bernard Kouchner, arrived in Beirut for a dual-purpose visit. The French foreign ministry said he wants to show solidarity with Lebanon at "this critical time," and he was also holding talks with the rival Lebanese political factions in a bid to end the deadlock that has all but paralyzed the government for the past six months.
Several cabinet ministers have linked the fighting in Tripoli to efforts to derail a proposed international court to try suspects in the 2002 car bomb killing of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 22 others.