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Last Updated: Wednesday, 23 May 2007, 14:52 GMT 15:52 UK
Refugees escape Lebanese clashes
Palestinian refugees who fled Nahr al-Bared sleep in a school in a nearby camp
Schools in a nearby camp are being used to shelter the refugees
Thousands of people have used a lull in fighting between troops and Islamist militants to flee a refugee camp in northern Lebanon.

Palestinians in Nahr al-Bared had been trapped for three days as Lebanese army troops exchanged fire with Fatah al-Islam fighters holed up in the camp.

At least 50 soldiers and militants have died. The civilian toll is unknown.

There have been no reports of trouble in the past few hours. The lull in fighting began overnight.

Talks to end the crisis are still going on. A formal ceasefire has not been declared.

The BBC's Jim Muir, who is outside the camp, says both the Lebanese army and the Islamist militants are apparently still in place, and the unofficial truce could break down at any time.

UN head of humanitarian affairs John Holmes appealed to the warring sides to allow aid supplies into the camp.

FATAH AL-ISLAM
Split from Palestinian group Fatah al-Intifada in late 2006
Believed to have 150-200 armed men, based in Nahr al-Bared camp
Denies al-Qaeda links but says it endorses its ideas
Has links with Syrian intelligence, Lebanon says
Leader is Shaker al-Abssi

He said it was outrageous that a relief convoy which had entered the camp on Tuesday had been forced to turn back after shells exploded near its vehicles.

Our correspondent says that overnight some sporadic fighting was reported, with only occasional gunfire and occasional shelling being heard on Wednesday morning.

Many of the embattled camp's thousands of inhabitants took the chance to get out, heading for another camp nearby or for the neighbouring city of Tripoli. They crammed into all available vehicles, some even taking up seats in the boot, waving white flags as they left.

There are plans for schools to be used to put the refugees up if need be.

'People dying'

Ashraf Abu Khorj, who lives inside the camp, told the BBC conditions there were dire.

"Really really, the situation is so bad - no power, no food, no water," he said. "There is no hospital inside the camp. There are a lot of people injured, there are a lot of people dying."

The fighting is the bloodiest internal conflict in Lebanon since the civil war ended 17 years ago.

map

It began on Sunday after security forces raided a building in Tripoli to arrest suspects in a bank robbery. Fatah al-Islam militants then attacked army posts at the entrances to the camp.

A large force of Lebanese troops hit back, bombarding the camp and storming a building on the outskirts of Tripoli.

The Nahr al-Bared camp - which, under a 38-year-old deal, the military cannot enter - has been under scrutiny since two bus bombings in a Christian area of Beirut in February, blamed on Fatah al-Islam militants based in the camp.

Fatah al-Islam is a radical Palestinian splinter group alleged to have links with al-Qaeda. Lebanese officials also believe it is backed by Syria.

Other Palestinian groups have distanced themselves from Fatah al-Islam, which emerged last year.

US assistance

On Monday evening, the Lebanese cabinet authorised the army to step up its efforts and "end the terrorist phenomenon that is alien to the values and nature of the Palestinian people".

Lebanon is home to more than 350,000 Palestinian refugees, many of whom fled or were forced to leave their homes when Israel was created in 1948.

The US state department said it was considering an urgent request from the Lebanese government for more military aid to help battle the militants.

And in Beirut, European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana met Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora to discuss the fighting, appealing for calm and calling on the military to respect the safety of civilians.


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VIDEO AND AUDIO NEWS
Refugees fleeing the camp after days of fighting



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