About 40 people are reported killed in fierce gunbattles between the Lebanese army and members of an Islamic extremist group in northern Lebanon. The clashes centered around a Palestinian refugee camp near the city of Tripoli. Security officials say 22 soldiers and 17 militants were killed. There were also reports that at least six civilians were killed inside the camp. Late Sunday a woman was killed and at least six others wounded in an explosion near a busy shopping center in Beirut. VOA Correspondent Challiss McDonough has more from our Middle East bureau in Cairo.
The Lebanese army battled for hours with militants from the shadowy group known as Fatah al-Islam. The clashes erupted around dawn, after security forces raided a building looking for suspects in a bank robbery.
The fighting spread to surrounding streets in the city of Tripoli and to the nearby Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared.
The sound of automatic gunfire and tank rounds could be heard echoing through the streets around the camp as the battle wore on.
Prime Minister Fuad Siniora issued a statement accusing Fatah al-Islam of attacking the army in an effort to destabilize Lebanon.
Several cabinet ministers linked the violence in Tripoli to the proposed international tribunal to try suspects in the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The issue has deadlocked Lebanese politics for the last six months. The U.N. Security Council has recently inched closer to establishing the court over the objections of Lebanese opposition parties.
Political scientist Fadia Kiwan, who heads the political science department at St. Joseph University in Beirut, said she believes the timing of the clashes is key to understanding why they occurred.
"We think it is very significant," said Fadia Kiwan. "The parties who are threatened by this court are trying to manipulate these groups in order to create problems in Lebanon."
Kiwan said she believes the group is being manipulated by outside forces - although she did not say precisely which ones.
Lebanese authorities have charged several of the group's members with bombing two buses in a Christian area near Beirut in February. Fatah al-Islam denies involvement. The group is accused of having ties to al Qaida and the Syrian intelligence service, charges it also denies.
As the gunbattles in and near Tripoli continued, the Lebanese army sent in reinforcements that took up positions around the camp and near a building in Tripoli where militants were holed up. At one point, witnesses said Fatah al-Islam fighters took over two army checkpoints near the camp entrance.
A Fatah al-Islam spokesman told Al Jazeera that the group was only defending itself.
By longstanding tradition, Lebanese security forces do not enter Palestinian refugee camps, some of which are controlled by armed groups. Fatah al-Islam is a fairly new splinter group that broke away last year from another faction known as Fatah Uprising, which broke away from the mainstream Fatah movement in the 1980s.
All of the major Palestinian factions have disavowed ties with the Fatah al-Islam group, saying it shares the al-Qaida ideology that they reject.