TRIPOLI, Lebanon: 27 may Many families from the Palestinian refugee camp that has been caught in the battle between Islamic militants and the Lebanese Army have fled the camp, but thousands of people remain trapped inside, a United Nations official said Sunday.The Nahr al-Bared camp, near the outskirts of this northern Lebanese port city, was calm Sunday after sporadic gunfire overnight between the army and Fatah al-Islam militants in the camp punctured a four-day-old truce.

Hoda al-Turk, a spokeswoman for the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees, said that more than 5,000 refugee families – or about 25,000 refugees – had left the camp, which was home to about 31,000 people, since the fighting began a week ago. Most of those families have fled to the nearby Beddawi refugee camp, while others are staying in Tripoli and other villages, she said. In a videotape obtained Saturday by AP Television News in Tripoli, the head of Fatah al-Islam, Shaker Youssef al-Absi, said his fighters would not surrender but would kill those who stormed the camp. "We wish to die for the sake of God," he said. "Sunni people are the spearhead against the Zionist Americans." He is suspected of having ties to Al Qaeda.

The military has placed more troops around the camp, which is already ringed by hundreds of soldiers, backed by artillery and tanks. Fatah al-Islam has claimed to have more than 500 fighters with automatic weapons, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades inside the camp.

Three U.S. transport planes carrying military aid arrived Saturday from Kuwait. So far, eight military transport planes have landed at Beirut airport since Thursday, including four from the U.S. Air Force, two from the United Arab Emirates and two from Jordan. Media reports said the planes carried ammunition, body armor, helmets and night-vision equipment.

U.S. arms are a sensitive issue in a country deeply divided between supporters of Prime Minister Fuad Saniora’s government and an opposition backed by Iran and Syria. The Shiite Hezbollah-led opposition accuses Saniora of having ties that are too close to Washington.

The Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah criticized the American aid, saying Friday that Lebanon was being dragged into a U.S. war against Al Qaeda that would destabilize the country. He warned the military against attacking Nahr al-Bared.

Saniora defended the U.S. aid, telling the Arabic service of the British Broadcasting Corporation that the aid was not a "crime" and that the weapons had been offered by different countries a year ago.

Palestinian factions, meanwhile, have been scrambling to find a negotiated solution to end the siege and avert what many fear would be a bloody battle between the Lebanese Army and Fatah al-Islam.

An all-out army assault could prompt violence elsewhere in Lebanon, host country to about 400,000 Palestinian refugees who mostly live in camps that are rife with armed groups.

At least 20 civilians and 30 soldiers have been killed in the fighting. The Lebanese military says 60 Fatah al-Islam fighters were killed, though the group put the toll at 10.

The Lebanese government has given Palestinian factions until the middle of the week to negotiate an end to a deadly standoff between army soldiers and rebels holed up inside a Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon.
"The authorities have given Palestinian organisations until the middle of the week" to try to reach a settlement, a Lebanese government source told AFP on condition of anonymity.

The source added that Lebanon wants the handover of fighters from Fatah al-Islam, the group engaged in clashes with the army, to stand trial over attacks against its armed forces.

"The government remains very determined to see those who are guilty handed over,” he said.

Reports say factions engaged in the negotiations are the main Palestinian parties in Lebanon, including the mainstream Fatah party of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, the resistance group Hamas and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP).

All Palestinian groups have distanced themselves from Fatah al-Islam.

  • "Non-conventional weapons"

Fears of an escalation grew after the Lebanese government threatened to launch a massive offensive against the Nahr El-Bared camp and after the rebels refused to surrender.

In a video message released late on Saturday, Fatah al-Islam leader Shaker Abssi vowed to continue fighting, claiming that the group’s fight was with "Jews and Americans" and not Lebanon.

Abssi also said that his group was "not a threat to the security of Lebanon" and accused an unidentified "third party" of starting the hostilities.

Meanwhile, a spokesman for the group accused the United States of shipping "non-conventional weapons", including nerve gas, to Lebanon.

"If these arms are used against our group, we will respond with non-conventional attacks in different parts of Lebanon,” the spokesman warned.

The United States had delivered military aid to the Lebanese army over the past two days. The U.S. Congress also approved a massive seven-fold boost in military support for the country, to 280 million dollars in 2007.

The arms’ shipment is a sensitive issue in Lebanon. On Saturday, Hezbollah’s leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah warned the Lebanese government, which claims that Fatah al-Islam is linked with al-Qaeda, against being drawn into making the siege of the Nahr El-Bared fighters a new front in Washington’s "war on terror".

Sheikh Nasrallah also doubted the sincerity of the sudden U.S. interest in Lebanon’s stability.

  • Thousands flee besieged camp

Hoda al-Turk, a spokeswoman for the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (Unwra) told the Associated Press news agency that about 25,000 refugees had now left the besieged camp.

But Nahr al-Bared houses about 40,000 Palestinian refugees and many people are still trapped inside, with no food, water or electricity.

Lebanese army soldiers are still surrounding the camp and more reinforcements have arrived, further raising fears over the fate of civilians inside the camp.

Sporadic gunfire was reported overnight at Nahr El-Bared. "There were rounds of gunbattles during the night, but this morning the situation is calm. There is an uneasy calm," a Lebanese army spokesman said.

A week of clashes between Lebanese forces and rebels at the Nahr El-Bared camp has left more than 80 people killed, including several civilians.

The clashes at Nahr El-Bared, the worst in Lebanon since the 1975-1990 civil war, further undermine the security of the country, which has also witnessed a series of bomb attacks, unsolved political assassinations and is still recovering from last year’s war between Israel and Hezbollah.