A Lebanese army soldier directs a tank on a highway near the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr el-Bared, in the north city of Tripoli, Lebanon, Friday.AP Photo
TRIPOLI, Lebanon — The United States and Arab allies rushed military aid to Lebanon Friday, boosting its strength ahead of a possible army assault to crush Islamic militants barricaded in a Palestinian refugee camp.
Palestinian factions were scrambling to find a negotiated solution to end the siege and avert what many fear would be a bloody battle over the Nahr el-Bared camp, where thousands of civilians remain in the line of fire.
Defense Minister Elias Murr said he was “leaving room for political negotiations,” which he said must lead to the surrender of the fighters from the Fatah Islam militant group inside the camp.
“If the political negotiations fail, I leave it to the military command to do what is necessary,” he told reporters.
The military was gearing up for a fight, rolling more troops into place around the camp in northern Lebanon, already ringed by hundreds of soldiers backed by artillery and tanks. Fatah Islam has claimed to have over 500 fighters, armed with automatic weapons, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades.
At least a dozen more armored carriers and a battle tank were seen headed for the area Friday.
Sporadic gunfire at Nahr el-Bared camp kept tensions high, but a truce that has halted three days of heavy artillery and rocket bombardment since Tuesday held.
An all-out assault on the camp would risk sparking unrest and violence elsewhere in the country, where some 400,000 Palestinian refugees live, most in camps that are rife with armed groups.
A deputy Fatah Islam leader, Abu Hureira, told the pan-Arab Al Hayat daily by telephone from Nahr el-Bared that “sleeper cells” in other Palestinian camps and elsewhere in Lebanon were awaiting word for a “violent response” if the army struck.
The U.S. military aid could also attract other militants into what they see as a battle against the West and its allies. Extremist groups were already using the battle at the camp as propaganda.
A group billing itself as al-Qaida’s branch in Syria and Lebanon vowed “seas of blood” if the Lebanese army resumes its attack. In a video posted on the Web Friday, a spokesman for the group threatened bomb attacks on Lebanon’s vital tourist industry. Earlier, a Palestinian group called the Army of Islam also threatened attacks. Capabilities of the two groups are not known.
The airlift from the United States and Arab countries boosts the military in what could be a tough urban battle inside the camp, a densely built town of narrow streets.
But the U.S. aid is sensitive in a nation deeply divided between supporters of a pro-Western government and an opposition backed by America’s Mideast foes, Iran and Syria. The opposition accuses the government of Prime Minister Fuad Saniora of being too closely allied to Washington.