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Islamists tied to bus attacks

Lebanese officials say four members of a group allegedly linked to the Iraq insurgency confess to bombings last month.

March 14, 2007|Raed Rafei | Special to The Times

BEIRUT — Officials here Tuesday linked a pair of deadly bombings last month to a group they said was composed of Syria-backed Sunni Arab veterans of the Iraq insurgency.

Lebanese government officials said Tuesday that four Syrian nationals belonging to Fatah al-Islam, a self-proclaimed Sunni militant group, had been arrested and confessed to the bombings that killed three people in a mostly Christian district in the mountains overlooking the capital.

The alleged confessions have raised fears that Sunni extremists are plotting terrorist attacks in a country already perched on the edge of domestic warfare. Officials including Interior Minister Hassan Sabaa, a Sunni who belongs to a political coalition long critical of Syria, accused that country of standing behind the group.

"It is no secret that Fatah al-Islam is part of the Syrian intelligence-security apparatus," Sabaa told reporters after a Cabinet meeting Tuesday.

He said the group had been plotting another attack against Christian targets before March 14, the anniversary of a massive demonstration in 2005 against the ruling government.

Members of the group, which was formed by a few hundred men of different Arab nationalities, entered Lebanon across the Syrian border and have settled in a camp for Palestinian refugees near the northern city of Tripoli, said Ahmed Fatfat, a leading Sunni member of the government and former interim interior minister.

The 200 or so men arrived as part of a Syria-backed Palestinian faction called Fatah al-Intifada, which has bases in Syria. In November, the group proclaimed itself a new militant organization committed to fighting the enemies of Islam.

In a statement Tuesday, Fatah al-Islam denied any connection to the bombings. A leader of the group, who earlier granted a rare interview to The Times, said it aimed to fight only Israel.

"Our sole objective is the liberation of Jerusalem from Zionists," said the man, who identified himself only by the honorific Abu Moayed.

The group has emerged at a particularly volatile point in Lebanon's turbulent history, when political divisions continue to deepen between a Western-backed government and the opposition led by the Shiite militant movement Hezbollah.

Salah Salah, chairman of the Palestinian refugees standing committee in Lebanon, said the group includes Sunni insurgents who fought against U.S. occupation of Iraq.

"When their presence in Iraq was dangerous and possible no more, they sought help from a leader of a Palestinian faction in Syria that facilitated their entry into Lebanon," he said.

Last month, a Lebanese military prosecutor pressed charges against three members of Fatah al-Islam who were accused of attempting to leave the country illegally. Judicial officials said the three had confessed to "carrying out military training outside Lebanon and having been in Iraq."

Abu Moayed was interviewed recently in a dim room inside the group's small paramilitary base at Naher Bared, one of Lebanon's 14 closed refugee camps housing about 400,000 Palestinians.

Outside the camp, a few young bearded men with AK-47 rifles were on guard. On a brick wall beside them, a neat calligraphy of a Koranic verse exhorts Muslims to "prepare a force to fight" their enemies.

Abu Moayed, dressed in a dark blue track suit and sporting a neatly trimmed beard, said the group was formed by Palestinians from various Arab countries to defend the Palestinian cause. He denied that any of them had fought in Iraq.

"We have the means to achieve our goal and we will deal with any force that tries to keep us away from executing it, whether it's the army or foreign forces," Abu Moayed said.

The camp lies well north of the Israeli-Lebanese border, which is populated mostly by Shiites and Christians and has been under the protection of a United Nations peacekeeping force since the halt of last summer's war between Hezbollah and Israel.

The U.N. force has drawn the ire of Al Qaeda, which has threatened to carry out operations against what it called the "crusader occupying forces."

In interviews, Fatah al-Islam members denied any direct connections to Osama Bin Laden's network or any intention to fight international troops.

"We are not Al Qaeda," Abu Moayed said, though he added that he admired the network and its ideology.

Fatfat said he doubted that Fatah al-Islam or other Sunni Islamists could upend Lebanon's fragile peace without the backing of foreign elements.

"We are far away from what is happening in Iraq unless there is a clear regional decision to support these extremist groups and unleash them," he said.

In the last two years, Lebanese authorities have announced the arrests of several alleged members of Al Qaeda but have provided no information about their fate.

Today, members of Fatah al-Islam openly conduct military training in the refugee camp under the eye of the Lebanese army, which has set up checkpoints at the entrances to control them. Lebanese forces cannot crack down on the group because it meets inside a Palestinian camp, Fatfat said. (An informal agreement reached between Palestinians and the government at the 1990 conclusion of Lebanon's civil war provides for the refugee camps to remain outside the authority of the army.)

Palestinian factions coexist with Fatah al-Islam, fearing that conflict could lead to many civilian deaths.

Meanwhile, Fatah al-Islam is purportedly establishing contacts with Islamists in Lebanon's mostly Sunni and Christian north. Residents and officials in the camp say outlawed Islamists from other camps in the country have joined them.

"What is worrying is that this group has good financial resources," said Salah, the refugee leader. "They are clearly getting support from someone, but whom? Nobody knows."

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