TRIPOLI, Lebanon — Lebanon’s pro-Western prime minister on Saturday rejected opposition criticism over planeloads of U.S. military aid pouring in to shore up the country’s army in its battle with Islamic militants in a Palestinian refugee camp.
Three more U.S. transport planes with military supplies arrived from Kuwait as part of an international airlift. A total of eight military transport planes have landed at Beirut airport since late Thursday — four from the U.S. Air Force, two from the United Arab Emirates and two from Jordan.
A four-day-old truce between the Lebanese army and al-Qaida inspired Fatah Islam militants mostly held up on Saturday despite sporadic gunfire in the Nahr el-Bared camp on the outskirts of the northern port city of Tripoli. But the Lebanese army has been gearing up for a renewed fight, rolling more troops into place around the camp already ringed by hundreds of soldiers backed by artillery and tanks.
Arms shipments continue
The military confirmed it has received supplies from Arab countries and the U.S. but gave no details. Media reports said they included ammunition, body armor, helmets and night-vision equipment.
U.S. military officials have said Washington will send eight planeloads of supplies, part of a package that had been agreed on but that the Lebanese government asked to be expedited.
The U.S. aid is sensitive in a nation deeply divided between supporters of the pro-Western government and an opposition backed by America’s Mideast foes, Iran and Syria. The opposition, led by the Shiite Hezbollah, accuses Prime Minister Fuad Saniora’s government of being too closely allied to Washington.
‘Don’t we want to protect Lebanon?’
Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah warned Friday that Lebanon was being dragged into a U.S. war against al-Qaida that would destabilize the country.
But Saniora told the Arabic service of the British Broadcasting Crop. on Saturday that the aid was not a “crime” and that the weapons had been offered by different countries a year ago.
“Don’t we want to protect Lebanon? Who defends Lebanon?” Saniora said, adding that Nasrallah’s criticism reflected a desire to “keep the army weak in order to justify the presence of other armies” — a reference to Syria, Hezbollah’s close ally which controlled Lebanon for nearly three decades.
The fighting broke out last Sunday when police raided suspected hideouts of Fatah Islam in Tripoli, searching for bank robbers. It spread to nearby Nahr el-Bared where Fatah Islam claims to have more than 500 fighters armed with automatic weapons, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades. The group’s leader has been linked to Al-Qaida in Iraq and says he admires Osama bin Laden.
Flood of refugees
At least 20 civilians and 30 soldiers were killed in the fighting earlier this week. The Lebanese military says 60 Fatah Islam fighters were killed; the group put the toll at 10.
About half of Nahr el-Bared’s 31,000 residents have fled since the truce took hold, flooding nearby Beddawi camp.
An all-out assault on the camp risks sparking unrest and violence elsewhere in the country, where some 400,000 Palestinian refugees live, mostly in camps that are rife with armed groups.
The U.S. military aid also could attract other militants into what they see as a battle against the West and its allies.
A group billing itself as al-Qaida’s branch in Syria and Lebanon vowed “seas of blood” Friday if the Lebanese army resumes its attack.
Meanwhile, a few dozen more Palestinians left Nahr el-Bared on Saturday and four ambulances entered the camp bringing medicine. Trucks from the international Red Cross brought water, bread and candles.
Souad Ali, 70, one of the people who left, said she had cancer and asthma and did not know where she would go.
“I don’t care if I sleep on the street. Anywhere is better than this hell,” she said, pointing to the camp.
Palestinian factions have been scrambling to find a negotiated solution to end the siege.
Defense Minister Elias Murr said Friday he was “leaving room for political negotiations,” which he said must lead to the surrender of the Fatah Islam fighters inside the camp.
“If the political negotiations fail, I leave it to the military command to do what is necessary,” he said.
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