updated 8/24/2007 10:27:06 AM ET 2007-08-24T14:27:06

Relatives of Islamic fighters holed up in a Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon began leaving the besieged area Friday, according to a Muslim clergyman mediating between the militants and the army.

“The evacuation has started,” Sheik Mohammed al-Haj of the Palestinian Scholars’ Association told Al-Jazeera television from the southern entrance to the Nahr el-Bared camp.

He said the group — mostly women and children — were relatives of the Fatah Islam fighters inside the camp.

“Lebanese army soldiers received the women and children,” al-Haj said. “After undergoing the necessary security checks, they are being taken to (army) buses.”

Al-Haj added that he hoped the evacuation would be “a step toward ending” the Nahr el-Bared crisis.

An official with the Palestinian Scholars’ Association who did not want to be identified because of the sensitivity of the operation, said the army received the civilians in an area inside the camp under the military’s control.

The women and children were given food and water before boarding buses that would take them outside the camp for interrogation, the official added.

The evacuation follows a deal reached with Fatah Islam fighters inside the camp to allow their families to leave.

Al-Haj said he was contacted Friday by Fatah Islam spokesman Abu Salim Taha, requesting his mediation with the Lebanese army command for a truce to allow the remaining civilians to leave. He said 63 people — 22 women and 41 children — were expected to be among the evacuees Friday.

Army had dropped bigger bombs
In the last two weeks, the Lebanese army has augmented its months-old artillery bombardment of the camp with 880-pound bombs dropped from helicopters, which may have prompted the fighters to ask for the truce.

Highlighting security concerns surrounding the evacuation, authorities later asked journalists to leave the area of the camp’s southern entrance. A security official this week had expressed concern that some of those leaving might be wearing explosive belts.

Some media reports said the civilians are believed to include the wife of Fatah Islam leader Shaker Youssef al-Absi and the widow of his deputy, Abu Hureira, who was killed by security troops outside the camp earlier this month.

A spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, Samar Kadi, said the ICRC had been contacted Friday to prepare for a possible evacuation.

The Association has been mediating between the militants and the army since fighting broke out in the camp on May 20.

For weeks, the army has been calling on the estimated 100 women and children still in the camp to leave, clearing the way for a final military assault to eradicate the remaining Fatah Islam fighters there.

The camp’s more than 30,000 civilian residents fled in the first weeks of the fighting. The army estimates only 70 Fatah Islam fighters remain, down from 360 when it began.

The army has refused to halt its offensive until the Islamic militants completely surrender, while, until now, the militants have vowed to fight to the death.

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