|Lebanon’s army has been battling Fatah al-Islam
fighters for more than three months now [AFP]
Lebanon’s army has used artillery, bombs and ground troops in an attempt to overcome fighters from Fatah al-Islam, who are lodged inside a Palestinian refugee camp at Nahr al-Bared.
Helicopters have launched bombs to destroy Fatah al-Islam’s underground bunkers and Lebanese army soldiers have advanced into the camp to engage in hand-to-hand combat with the opposition fighters.
But as the conflict enters its fourth month, the army has still not been able to wipe out the group.
Some experts say the army troops are inexperienced and have never fought this type of urban guerrilla warfare before.
Fatah al-Islam’s fighters are well-prepared. They are ready to die rather than surrender.
The army estimates that around 70 fighters remain inside the camp in northern Lebanon.
The lack of sophisticated weaponry is a major reason for the army’s failure to take the camp, General Michel Suleiman, commander of the Lebanese army, has said.
What the army has to do is fit bombs on the ageing transport helicopters, which are not fit to be equipped with weapons in the first place
Some former generals agree with Suleiman.
“The army doesn’t have an air force … and even its helicopters are not armed,” Nizar Abdel Qadder, a retired general, told Al Jazeera.
“What the army has to do is fit bombs on the ageing transport helicopters, which are not fit to be equipped with weapons in the first place.”
Suleiman had said US promises of military support to Lebanon have not been matched by firm action.
“We need weapons, conventional and advanced ammunition,” he said in reference to Washington’s package of military aid.
When the battles broke out, the US sent helmets, body armour, night-vision goggles and ammunition for weapons the army already possessed.
Suleiman thanked the US for its assistance but he hoped the support package would have included modern weapons and advanced ammunition.
Shamel Mouzaya, a member of Lebanon’s parliamentary defence committee, told Al Jazeera “superpowers have placed conditions [on us in order] to sell and provide sophisticated and heavy weapons, like ending the state of war with Israel”.
Analysts say the US is concerned that its advanced weaponry could end up in the hands of non-state groups opposed to Israel.
|About 70 Fatah al-Islam fighters remain in the
besieged refugee camp at Nahr al-Bared [AFP]
The US has responded to Suleiman’s statements by saying they are meeting all the demands of the Lebanese army.
The Lebanese government, which is backed by the US administration in its power struggle with the Hezbollah-led opposition, agrees with Washington’s line.
“The US provided money and equipment … maybe the army wants more but whatever they requested, they got,” Ahmed Fatfat, minister of youth and sports, told Al Jazeera.
“And I don’t think sophisticated weaponry will be of use in such a battle which really involves street fighting.”
Suleiman’s comments have been criticised by some as a political statement, especially since he is now considered a presidential candidate if no agreement is reached on a successor to Emile Lahoud, Lebanon’s outgoing president.
“Politicians shouldn’t talk about military matters and military men shouldn’t talk about political issues,” Fatfat said.
The fighting at Nahr al-Bared has made the military the symbol of Lebanese unity, and its commander has been praised for keeping the army out of the political wrangling between the government and the opposition.
Yet there remains concern that the army could be dragged into the crisis.
The real test is whether the military will be able to stay united and neutral – unlike the days of the 1975-1990 civil war when it split along sectarian lines.