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Last Updated: Wednesday, 23 May 2007, 19:30 GMT 20:30 UK
Lebanese minister warns militants
A masked fighter from Fatah al-Islam in Nahr al-Bared on 23 May 2007
Fatah al-Islam is suspected of having links with al-Qaeda
Lebanon's defence minister has said Islamist militants entrenched in a Palestinian refugee camp must surrender or face further military action.

Elias Murr told al-Arabiya TV that the army would not negotiate with "a group of terrorists and criminals".

Earlier, thousands of people used a lull in fighting between troops and militants from Fatah al-Islam to flee the Nahr al-Bared camp.

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

A formal ceasefire has not been declared, and correspondents say the unofficial truce could break down at any time.

'Two options'

Speaking in an interview with the Arabic satellite TV channel, Mr Murr said there would be no negotiations with those inside the camp in northern Lebanon.

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

"The army will not negotiate with a group of terrorists and criminals."

"Their fate is arrest, and if they resist the army, death."

The minister said more than 50 militants had been killed in fighting at the camp since Sunday - a figure the militants have disputed.

Mr Murr said those who had survived his troops' bombardment had two options.

"The first one, which we prefer, is that they surrender," he said.

"The other, which we do not like, is military action."

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".

Refugees escape

Taking advantage of the informal ceasefire earlier on Wednesday, many of the embattled camp's thousands of inhabitants took the chance to get out.

map

They crammed into all available vehicles, some even taking up seats in the boot, waving white flags as they left.

Some headed for another Palestinian refugee camp nearby, while others travelled to the neighbouring city of Tripoli.

The refugees were escaping the bloodiest internal conflict in Lebanon since the civil war ended 17 years ago.

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.

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 factions have distanced themselves from the group, which emerged last year.


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