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Fighting Continues Between Lebanese Army, Palestinian Militants

May 21, 2007 at 6:10 PM EST
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MARGARET WARNER: Louise Roug of the Los Angeles Times, thanks for being with us. There are reports that a cease-fire has been declared. Has the fighting actually stopped? And for how long?

LOUISE ROUG, Los Angeles Times: Well, from what we understand, there has been a cease-fire. Fighting has stopped in the north, but at the same time we’ve had a bombing here in Beirut in an upscale shopping area called Verdun. We have six wounded here already. Balconies have been sheared off buildings. Fires have been set ablaze. So fighting appears to have spread, or at least the bombings, here in the capital.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, the fighting in the north had already been described as the worst since the 15-year — the worst internal violence anyway since the 15-year civil war ended. You were up there yesterday. How did it look on the ground?

LOUISE ROUG: Well, there are several things going on. In Tripoli itself, there was a standoff between soldiers and gunmen holed up inside an apartment in an affluent neighborhood. That was a fierce firefight that lasted 10 hours.

Both security forces and the militants were using grenades, and the firefights echoed between the apartment blocks. Eventually, the soldiers were able to kill all the men inside and found them. They had been strapped with explosives, clearly ready to kill themselves in suicide attacks.

Then, elsewhere in Tripoli, there were also sporadic fighting. And in a refugee camp, the army had set up a position on a hill and were barraging the camps with artillery.

Connections with al-Qaida?

MARGARET WARNER: Now, this Islamist group in that camp, Fatah al-Islam, and its leader, Shaker al-Absi, who are they? And what do they want?

LOUISE ROUG: Well, they have been connected to al-Qaida, or at least the leader has apparently been affiliated with Abu Musab Zarqawi, who, of course, was the leader in al-Qaida Iraq, who was killed by the Americans last year.

It's a little bit unclear what they want. There has been reports and accusations that they're supported by the Syrians and really what they want is just to foment unrest.

MARGARET WARNER: You mean to destabilize the Lebanese government?

LOUISE ROUG: Indeed. And we spoke to one of their spokesmen yesterday, and he denied any involvement with Syria, pointing out that their leader and some their brothers that they call them had been arrested and spent time in Syrian prisons. And Damascus, as well, has denied any kind of involvement.

Fatah al-Islam's appeal

MARGARET WARNER: Now, this leader has given some interviews. He did one with the New York Times back in March, or at least it ran in March, in which he seemed to endorse the global jihadist movement and talked about wanting to drive Americans out of Islamic lands. Is that your understanding of his aims?

LOUISE ROUG: Well, ideologically they seem to be quite close to bin Laden and other al-Qaida leaders. When we spoke to them yesterday, they expressed a similar sentiment, talking about wanting to die for the cause, et cetera.

And some of us here say, you know, this is fertile grounds for such extremist groups. After all, it's a very unstable country. And it can be used -- the groups can be used by the various groups. And you have the presence of international troops. So it's, in other words, targets for the group.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, you've reported from inside some of these camps. Is there much -- how broad is the appeal of radical Islamic groups, as opposed to, say, nationalist Palestinian groups inside the camps?

LOUISE ROUG: Well, from what I understand, there's very little sympathy for the groups inside the camps. In fact, there has been fighting within the camps, people trying to drive out the group in the past.

You know, a lot of the people inside that we've spoken kind of feel like hostages. You know, they're being punished for this group's activities. You know, there's no electricity anymore inside the camp. There's no water. People are getting pretty desperate.

Efforts to end the conflict

MARGARET WARNER: So is this a fairly new element to have a group, an armed group, inside one of these camps with really an Islamist ideology?

LOUISE ROUG: Well, there has been other groups in other camps who have had sort of a long established presence, but none who have had the kind of -- who've been violent in the way that this group has. You know, they're allegedly behind the bombing in February that killed three people in a Christian area of the mountains above the capital.

We've just had yesterday a bombing in a Christian neighborhood in Beirut. And just now today, another bombing, apparently six injured in Verdun, a Sunni neighborhood. So if, indeed, this group is behind these bombings, it shows that they're willing and able to carry out attacks across Lebanon.

MARGARET WARNER: And Lebanese officials you speak with, how do they think this is going to end? I mean, if they won't go into the camps because of this agreement back in 1969, how do they think they can end this?

LOUISE ROUG: Well, that's a big question. And for some groups, this just highlights the government's visibility, their impotence, as it were. You know, opposition groups like Hezbollah are suddenly suggesting that this just highlights the government's inefficiency and it's further proof that the government should stand down.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Louise Roug of Los Angeles Times, thanks for being with us.

LOUISE ROUG: Thank you.