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Story January 9, 2008

Lebanon: As Nahr al-Bared Recovery Continues, Militant Leader Threatens New Attacks


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All year, a string of car bombs, assassinations and the encampment of anti-government protesters in...

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The voice of fugitive militant leader Shakir al-Abssi arose like a specter from Lebanon's recent past yesterday. In a voice recording posted on the Internet, the radical leader of the Fatah al-Islam terrorist group threatened further attacks against the nation's U.S.-backed army.

In May, entrenched in the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp, the Jordanian-born al-Abssi led his Fatah al-Islam militants, which included many non-Palestinians, in a 15-week battle that tested the Lebanese national army and destroyed the refugee camp.

Al-Abssi reportedly escaped just hours before Fatah al-Islam's remaining holdouts were killed or captured in a final breakout attempt on Sept. 2.

If authentic, the recording is the first sign of life for al-Abssi in months, and a grim reminder of a harrowing trial for mainstream Lebanese. For the more than 30,000 Palestinians still displaced from Nahr al-Bared, however, there is no forgetting the latest catastrophe in their long and troubled history in the country.

For Ahmed Abueid, a 48-year-old father of seven, the nightmare is still fresh -- the eruption of violence, plans to wait it out, the days that turned into weeks as he huddled with dozens of family members in a single ground floor room at his home. He recalls his children shrieking as the fighting intensified around them. Army artillery shells crashed into his neighborhood, slammed into his home, killed two relief workers before his eyes.

Finally, after 20 days, Abued's family decided to flee. They moved the children out first and then the adults, threading their way through embattled streets and dodging sniper fire from soldiers and militants. "The battle was [between] two sides," said Abueid. "We had no hand in it."

Abueid's family is one of many crammed into friends' apartments or sleeping on floors at the nearby Beddawi camp. By August, more than 5,000 of Nahr al-Bared's 6,200 displaced families had scattered around Beddawi and other areas of northern Lebanon, according to statistics from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). In October, the first wave of families returned to stay in temporary shelters or their damaged homes.

The second wave should begin returning in late January, said UNRWA coordinator Mohammad Khaled. By March, the agency hopes to return about 450 families, who can choose between a new prefabricated home or subsidy for five months' rent.

About $40 million has been pledged for the reconstruction by international donors, a figure that is roughly 10 percent of the estimated cost of relief and reconstruction efforts.

Nadim Shehadi, a consultant to the Lebanese government, said the scope of the relief and reconstruction work ahead is unprecedented. "There has not been an example of the reconstruction of a whole community in the same place before," he said. "Since the Palestinians left Palestine and went to camps . . . the situation has continued on a temporary basis with temporary arrangements. Such an event makes you ask questions that have not been asked for the last 60 years, like how do you give them property, how do you organize security, what are the implications for other camps?"

Added to these are the difficulties posed by donor reluctance and the thorny politics of the region. Shehadi said that the recent crisis has reinvigorated earlier efforts by the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora to improve life for the roughly 300,000 Palestinians that live in Lebanon without basic rights and barred from dozens of professions. This month, government and aid officials are gathering input for the rebuilding plans from various Palestinian groups.

The plan, said Shehabi, is to build "a camp where there is going to be a rule of law and where the Palestinians will not be in the sort of ghetto situation that they were before with circumstances that encourage or help the emergence of a phenomenon like Fatah al-Islam."

The conflict at Nahr al-Bared renewed tensions in Lebanon concerning the role of Palestinians' self-policing armed groups. Many still blame the Palestinians for triggering the country's 1975-1990 civil war, and the conflict at Nahr al-Bared raised fears about the role of the Palestinian armed groups at a time when Lebanon is divided between a Hezbollah-allied opposition and a Western-backed ruling coalition.

On Monday, Palestine Liberation Organization representative Abbas Zaki called for renewed cooperation between Palestinian groups and the government, according to the Daily Star newspaper. Zakri acknowledged that the Palestinian presence has "forced Lebanon to put up with additional burdens," and he emphasized that Palestinians intend someday to return to Palestine.

Ali Ezziya couldn't agree more. The 60-year-old former Nahr al-Bared resident now shuffles between a school at Beddawi and the apartments where his family is staying. Sometimes he sleeps in a cave atop a small mountain outside the village. He hopes to return to Nahr al-Bared when he can. "But I would like to return to Palestine more," he said.

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