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7 militant Palestinians surrender at refugee camp

A photo of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat hung yesterday near rubble at the Nahr el-Bared refugee camp. A photo of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat hung yesterday near rubble at the Nahr el-Bared refugee camp. (AFP/Getty Images)

TRIPOLI, Lebanon -- Seven Al Qaeda-inspired guerrillas surrendered yesterday to a secular Palestinian faction at a besieged refugee camp in northern Lebanon, offering the first tangible sign that moderate Palestinians might be moving against the militants.

But others in the extremist group Fatah Islam continued to fight, and Lebanese government troops battered their hideouts in the Nahr el-Bared refugee camp for a fifth straight day. Clouds of smoke billowed over the camp as artillery shells exploded on militant positions.

Calm held at Lebanon's biggest Palestinian refugee camp, Ein el-Hilweh in the south, where Islamic extremists sympathetic to Fatah Islam clashed with Lebanese soldiers Sunday night and Monday morning. The camp's 65,000 residents remained on edge, fearing combat could erupt again.

Many people worry the fighting could spread to more of Lebanon's 12 camps for Palestinians, which are riven with the factional rivalries that have brought violence to the Gaza Strip.

The surrender by seven militants at Nahr el-Bared was the first time a major Palestinian group -- in this case the Fatah movement led by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas -- responded to calls by Lebanese authorities to campaign against Fatah Islam since fighting broke out May 20.

It coincided with Abbas's renewed denunciation of the group, whose few hundred members embrace Al Qaeda-style militancy and doctrine and are suspected of having links to Osama bin Laden's network.

Fatah Islam has nothing to do with the Palestinians, Abbas said in a speech in the West Bank marking 40 years of Israeli occupation. He accused the militants of "abusing the camps" to carry out attacks on the Lebanese Army and "endangering the lives of Palestinians."

The seven Fatah Islam members came over to Fatah positions in the southern parts of Nahr el-Bared, handed over their weapons, and pledged to stay out of the fight, said a Fatah commander, Major General Khaled Aref.

Speaking from his base at the Ein el-Hilweh camp in the city of Tyre, Aref told The Associated Press that Fatah was trying to persuade Palestinians at Nahr el-Bared who sided with the militants to abandon the fight because the battle is wrecking their homes.

Major Palestinian factions have been trying to mediate an end to the battle. The government wants the militants to surrender, but Fatah Islam leaders have vowed to fight to the death.