A bomb rocked a mountainous town on the outskirts of Beirut on Wednesday night, the third blast to hit the capital since the Lebanese army and Islamic militants began fighting in northern Lebanon.
The blasts are viewed as warnings to Lebanese authorities that the violence could escalate and diversify beyond the north and hit any pro-government areas. The previous blasts – on Sunday and Monday nights – targeted upscale residential and commercial neighbourhoods in predominantly Christian and Sunni Muslim districts of Beirut.
The explosion in Aley, which is particularly busy during the summer and a predominantly Muslim Druze area, took place in a narrow street, and wounded several people.
The bombings seem designed to spread fear. So far only one person is known to have been killed in the explosions, but they have added to the anxiety in a nation plagued by sectarian tensions, a months-long political crisis and polarised between pro-Syrian and anti-Syrian groups.
Lebanese officials say Fatah al-Islam, the militant group fighting the army in Nahr al-Bared refugee camp north of Tripoli, is a proxy of Syrian intelligence and bent on destabilising Lebanon. They say the violence is part of attempts to thwart the western-backed government’s efforts to get the UN Security Council to set up a tribunal to try suspects involved in the 2005 assassination of Rafiq Hariri, the former prime minister. UN commission investigation progress reports into the murder have fingered top Syrian officials.
Damascus denies the charges and allegations it has links to the militants. But pro-Syrian groups in Lebanon have warned that the establishment of a tribunal could suck the country back towards civil war.
The fighting between the militants and soldiers in and around the refugee camp is the worst in northern Lebanon since the civil conflict ended in 1990.
On Wednesday, an uneasy truce between the militants and the army enabled thousands of refugees to flee to safety.
The army has laid siege to camp since the fighting erupted on Sunday, bombarding it with tank fire and artillery shells as it seeks to root out the militants, but civilians have been caught in the cross-fire, with dozens wounded and killed. .
The truce came into force late on Tuesday and between 50 and 60 per cent of the camp’s more than 30,000 residents had left, Ahmad Fatfat, a government minister, told the Financial Times.
However, he warned that unless Fatah al-Islam militants gave themselves up the fighting would resume.
“They have two choices … battle or Lebanese justice,” he said. “We have no choice.”
He said no deadline had been set as the government was still in talks with other Palestinian groups.
“We have given some time to the Palestinian organisations to solve this issue,” he said.
A commander with Fatah al-Islam, which uses the camp as a base, told al-Jazeera, the Arab satellite network, the group was ready to fight on.
More than 70 people have been killed in the violence – including some 30 soldiers – and there have been mounting concerns that the army was shelling indiscriminately, killing civilians and destroying homes.
Residents who fled the camp described seeing many wounded and talked of widespread destruction, while expressing anger at both the army and Fatah al-Islam, which is said to include a number of foreign fighters.
There were also reports of corpses lying in the camp’s narrow streets. Palestinian Red Crescent staff said 16 bodies were taken from the camp from Tuesday evening up to midday yesterday.
Some of the wounded were taken to the overcrowded Safad hospital, a small building inside the nearby Beddawi camp, where patients recounted tales of fear, cowering inside their homes while gunfire and artillery explosions echoed around them.
“It was very hard, the people are very angry, angry against what is happening. We are not with this side or with that side,” said Ali Touhen. As he spoke, he stood next to his 21-year-old niece, Manal, a drip attached to her following surgery to remove shrapnel from her stomach – a result of a shell hitting the family’s two-story house.
More wounded arrived at the hospital in cars, while a few hundred yards away, some of the thousands who have fled packed into schools where they were given bread and water, registered and then prepared to sleep on floors.
Some of the refugees blamed the Lebanese government for the violence, saying Fatah al-Islam fighters could not have set up base in the camp without its knowledge.
“Fatah al-Islam is not accepted in the camp, the civilians did not like them, the Lebanese government put them there,” said Nibal Bashir, who sat in a hospital bed, grimacing in pain as result of a gunshot wound. “The people are scared of them, they heard they were coming to make trouble, they came to the camp with too much money, they could have bought the whole camp.”