It took 106 days and nearly 160 fatalities for the Lebanese Army to clear out the nest of terrorists who had infested the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp but they finally finished the job yesterday, killing Fatah al-Islam’s leader Shakir al-Abssi in the process:
The Lebanese Army has finished off the Fatah al-Islam legend, killed its leader Shaker al-Abssi and 31 other terrorists and rounded up 20 in the 106th day of the confrontation at the northern refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared.
Security agencies have launched a nationwide manhunt for 10 terrorists who escaped the battle Sunday by infiltrating through the al-Bared River stream.
Judicial sources told Naharnet a Palestinian cleric, who had mediated with Fatah al-Islam terrorists, identified al-Abssi’s body.
However, the judiciary issued a warrant to bring in al-Abssi’s wife and daughter to the public hospital in Tripoli to identify the body and, to conduct DNA tests that would provide the definite answer to questions related to identity of the alleged Abssi corpse, the sources explained.
Later reports from the hospital confirm that al-Abssi’s wife has in fact identified the body of her husband in the morgue.
Abssi created Fatah al-Islam last November following a break with the ultra radical Palestinian faction based in Syria Fatah al-Intifada. Sentenced to death in absentia for his role in the assassination of US Jordanian diplomat Laurence Foley, Abssi had previously fought with Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq and claims to have been inspired by al-Qaeda’s radical ideology, pledging his loyalty to Osama Bin Laden.
All that is known is that Abssi moved into Nahr al-Bared in November and in a matter of months, he had assembled 300 fighters (many of them Salifists from other Arab countries) and was training them at a makeshift camp. Many Lebanese believe that Abssi is a present from Syrian gangster President Bashar Assad. While Assad’s relations with the parent terror group Fatah al-Intifada are not the best, it is not beyond imagining that the Syrian president would have facilitated the creation and growth of Fatah al-Islam as a means to destabilize the Lebanese government.
Last spring, several members of Fatah al-Islam were implicated in a bank robbery and were traced to a building in Tripoli that housed a Fatah al-Islam office (the Lebanese government has also accused members of the group of carrying out a terrorist attack on commuter buses in February). The resulting gunfight turned into a siege with the terrorists finally blowing themselves up after a 3 day standoff. Other members of the group took refuge in the nearby Nahr al-Bared refugee camp, attacking the Lebanese army and vowing a fight to the death. The Lebanese army responded by firing artillery and heavy machine guns into the camp that housed 30,000 refugees at that time and the fight was on.
The Palestinian authorities in Lebanon at first tried to negotiate an end to the crisis but eventually, gave permission for the Lebanese army to enter the camp and take out the terrorists. And for the last 100 days, that is what the Lebanese Army has tried to do.
At first, the army tried frontal assaults on the terrorist positions which were repulsed with great loss of life. The Lebanese army had not fought a major engagement since the end of the civil war and its lack of training and experience showed. Gradually, and with what appeared to be rather indiscriminate use of heavy weapons, the Lebanese army began to shrink the pocket of terrorists until all that was left of their fortress like positions was a small group of destroyed buildings.
Some of the militants tried to sneak out through a tunnel, while another group tried to escape through a different path. Outside fighters arrived to help them, said security officials.
Army quickly deployed reinforcements to the camp, just outside the port city of Tripoli, blocked surrounding roads and set fires to nearby fields to deny fleeing militants a hiding place. Helicopters provided aerial reconnaissance for the military inside the camp, and checkpoints were erected as far as Beirut and southern Lebanon.
Villagers of nearby settlements, armed with guns and sticks, also came out to help the army and protect their houses, the state TV reported.
By the end of the day, the camp was in Lebanese army control and authorities declared victory over Fatah Islam. Officials said the army killed 39 militants and captured 20. It was not immediately known how many militants managed to escape.
The final civilian death toll is almost certainly higher than the official number of 20. Early days of the fighting saw the Lebanese army bombarding the camp with tank and artillery rounds while spraying heavy machine gun fire down the narrow streets. An early cease fire allowed most of the residents in the camp to escape. But there are still thousands of refugees in Nahr al-Bared who have been without water or food for months.
The Lebanese people are celebrating this victory by the army with Prime Minister Siniora going on television to praise their performance and pledging to rebuild the camp – under Lebanese control:
“It is a great success that the Lebanese army has achieved over the terrorists, those who sought chaos, destruction and tragedies for Lebanon,” he said in a televised speech to the country.
He pledged that the Lebanese government would rebuild Nahr al-Bared, but said that the camp would be placed under the authority of the state and “only the Lebanese state.”
“As we said at the beginning of the battle, the Lebanese state is committed to rebuilding the camp and today we are restating this pledge,” Saniora said, adding that he had called for a meeting of donor countries on September 10 to help in rebuilding efforts.
“As the state stood by you when you were forced to flee Nahr al-Bared, we stand by you again in rebuilding the camp so that you can return there with your heads held high,” Saniora said, addressing the estimated 30,000 Palestinian refugees who were forced to flee at the start of the standoff between the army and Fatah al-Islam militants on May 20.
The significance of this declaration of Lebanese control of Nahr al-Bared should not be lost on the Palestinian authorities. There are 12 Palestinian camps in Lebanon with internal security in them controlled by the PLO. The Lebanese army by tradition maintained security around the camps and was actually forbidden by a 1969 accord to enter. That agreement was voided by the Lebanese parliament in 1987 but had been maintained ever since because the potential for unrest in the camps if the Lebanese army violated the pact was great. Then, UN Resolution 1559 called upon Lebanon to establish sovereignty over all its land and disband the militias including Hizbullah and the Palestinian groups patrolling the refugee camps. So far, the Lebanese government has failed to implement 1559 but this declaration by Siniora would seem to be the first time that the Lebanese government has sought to establish its sovereignty where it had not been previously.
The practical benefits of the army’s victory should not be overlooked. While their initial efforts were less than successful and indeed, quite amateurish, the soldiers seemed to gain in confidence and ability as the siege wore on. Woefully underequipped, the army nevertheless ended up making the entire country proud by facing down and defeating a well armed, entrenched enemy.
Indeed, all of Lebanon is celebrating today – even the Hizbullah led opposition which had the good sense to support the efforts of the government to eradicate the terrorists despite the 9 month cabinet crisis that continues to threaten the stability of the country. There is little doubt that the army is the only major institution in Lebanon that is seen to be above politics (even though that may be less true than most Lebanese realize). Their well earned victory today gives a much needed boost to the besieged Siniora government while uniting the Lebanese, if briefly, in celebration.
What tomorrow will bring is a different story.
UPDATE: “VICTORY BABE”
I couldn’t resist. It’s been a while since we’ve seen a smile on the face of a beautiful Lebanese woman – without a doubt the best looking demonstrators in the world: