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As Lebanese troops mass, many flee camp

BEIRUT -- More than 150 civilians fled from a Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon yesterday as soldiers ringing the neighborhood moved up tanks and armored vehicles for a possible showdown with Islamic militants barricaded inside.

The army build-up came after a sniper inside the Nahr el-Bared camp killed a Lebanese soldier overnight, after repeated refusals by the Al Qaeda-inspired group Fatah Islam to surrender.

A senior military officer said an attack was looming after several days of little combat, but would not say when it would take place.

"This state of attrition cannot continue. At the end there will be a military operation," he told The Associated Press. "But there isn't a specific time for it to start," he added, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to give press statements.

Samar Kadi, an International Red Cross official, said some 150 Palestinians had left Nahr el-Bared with help from the Palestinian Red Crescent.

Most of the camp's 30,000 residents already fled near daily fighting that began May 20, but a few thousand are thought to have stayed in their homes. Those fleeing yesterday were mostly men, accompanied by some women and a few children.

"They looked exhausted and dirty but very relieved to be out," Kadi said.

Witnesses said soldiers searched the Palestinians at a checkpoint near the camp's southern entrance, before allowing them to climb into Red Crescent ambulances and army trucks.

Refugees suspected of ties with Fatah Islam were taken for questioning by the army. Some were later freed, while others were detained for further questioning, the witnesses said.

Among those fleeing were fighters of the Palestinian Fatah movement and other factions who stayed in the camp to defend positions against attack by Fatah Islam. They were reportedly urged to leave by their leaders in Beirut in anticipation of an army assault.

Witnesses said the army began moving in reinforcements to the Nahr el-Bared area near the northern port city of Tripoli a few days ago.