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2 Lebanese aid workers killed at refugee camp

June 12, 2007|Raed Rafei | Special to The Times

BEIRUT — Two Red Cross workers were killed and a third was severely wounded Monday when a mortar shell hit just outside a battle-scarred Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon.

The two Lebanese aid workers were standing at a northern entrance to the camp when they were killed by a round apparently fired from inside the camp, military and Lebanese Red Cross officials said.

The International Committee of the Red Cross identified the slain workers as Haitham Suleiman, 26, and Boulos Maamari, 25.

Two Lebanese soldiers also were killed Monday, one along with the aid workers. The other was killed while clearing a booby-trapped building in the camp, military officials said.

The Lebanese army has been fighting members of an Al Qaeda-inspired group of militants holed up in the Nahr el Bared refugee camp for more than three weeks. The battle has become the bloodiest internal fighting in Lebanon since a 15-year civil war ended in 1990.

"This terrorist gang does not differentiate between military targets and civilians, but seeks to spread terror and killing as a means to destabilize" the country, said lawmaker Saad Hariri, according to the National News Agency. He is the son of Rafik Hariri, Lebanon's slain former prime minister.

A Sunni Muslim sheik trying to mediate between the warring parties was wounded by a sniper as he was leaving the camp in an ambulance after talks with Fatah al Islam, the militant group, said Sheik Ayad Ardat, who also participated in the negotiations and witnessed the shooting.

"This is a minor incident; it will not affect our mediations," Ardat said. He pledged that the crisis would be resolved soon.

However, a spokesman for Fatah al Islam said the military had asked for the surrender of fighters who killed several sleeping soldiers in an ambush a few weeks ago, a request the group had rejected.

"We said they are dead," said Abu Salim Taha, the spokesman. "But even if they weren't killed, we would never hand in any of our brothers. We will fight until the last drop of blood."

Taha estimated his group's strength at a few hundred fighters and added that Palestinians at the camp had joined in the fight against the Lebanese army.

However, civilians fleeing the camp have told of militants using civilians as human shields.

The violence Monday capped a weekend of fighting that claimed the lives of 11 additional soldiers and injured more than 100. Since fighting began May 20, more than 133 people, including 57 soldiers, have been killed at the Nahr el Bared camp. Clashes at another refugee camp, in southern Lebanon, have left two additional soldiers dead.

Reliable estimates of civilian casualties are not available because aid groups and the media have had limited access to the Nahr el Bared camp. Thousands of civilians have fled the camp, but as many as 7,000 may still be inside, officials said.

The Red Cross has been stationed near a southern and a northern entrance to the camp, coordinating with Palestinian rescue groups to evacuate the wounded. Monday's casualties were the first among Red Cross workers in Lebanon since an Israeli airstrike hit an evacuation convoy during last summer's war between Israel and the Shiite Muslim militant group Hezbollah, killing one Lebanese Red Cross volunteer and six civilians.

Times staff writer Louise Roug contributed to this report.

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