Lebanon: Syria or al-Qaeda behind Fatah al-Islam?

Syria distanced itself May 22 from the Islamist militants battling Lebanese army troops for control of Tripoli’s Nahr al-Bared refugee camp. “We renounce Fatah al-Islam,” said Foreign Minister Walid Muallem. “Members of the group are wanted by the Syrian security services. This group serves neither the Palestinian cause nor the interests of the Palestinian people.” The group’s Palestinian leader Shaker al-Abssi slipped into Lebanon last year after serving three years in a Syrian prison. Lebanese officials accuse Damascus of backing Fatah al-Islam to stir up trouble in Lebanon. Said MP Walid Jumblatt: “The Nahr al-Bared camp is hostage to Fatah al-Islam, which is a terrorist gang that has been exported towards us from Syria.”

But Syria also protested plans for a UN trial in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik al-Hariri. Muallem said the hidden agenda is “to make all those who oppose American hegemony bow” to Washington’s will. “The Security Council is taking sides in the domestic divisions in Lebanon,” Muallem charged.

In New York, Syria’s UN Ambassador Bashar Jaafari portrayed the violence, which has left 66 dead since May 20, as a bid to rush the Security Council into setting up the Hariri tribunal. (AFP, May 23)

Fatah al-Islam, meanwhile, denied responsibility for two bomb blasts that rocked Beirut May 20 and 21. The first, in west Beirut, left ten wounded; the second, in a Christian district, killed a woman and wounded 10 others. A spokesman for the group disavowed a claim faxed in its name to news organizations in Beirut. “We did not send this statement,” said spokesman Abu Salim Taha. The faxed statement warned: “We will enflame the heart of Beirut again.”

Taha said Fatah al-Islam is ready to cease fire for the sake of the more than 30,000 residents of Nahr al-Bared, which has come under bombardment by the Lebanese army. (AFP, May 23) While there has been no official ceasefire, a lull in the fighting has allowed thousands of Palestinians to flee the camp. (Reuters, May 22)

See our last post on the Lebanon crisis and Syria.