The showdown between the Lebanese army and the Fatal al-Islam group began at 7 a.m. Friday morning when the army started shelling the camp very heavily. The soldiers have several 155-mm artillery guns on a hill about five kilometers to the east with a clear view of the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp, where the radical Islamist group has been holed up for two weeks after initiating a series of attacks on government forces. Although Fatah al-Islam has past links to al-Qaeda, the Lebanese government says it has evidence that Syrian intelligence operatives are coordinating with it now. From where I am watching, near a frontline army position, there is a loud crack of artillery shells passing overhead every few seconds and an explosion inside the camp a few seconds after that.
Most of the shelling seems concentrated at the northern end of the camp, where the Fatah al-Islam base is located. But there is also shelling elsewhere, and huge plumes of black smoke are rising from the camp. There is a tank near our position that is firing rounds, too. We are close enough to the camp that the soldiers are shooting with M16 rifles as well.
A lot of what sounds like close-quarter fighting is coming from the edges of the camp. What the army has been doing is tightening the perimeter of the camp the last few days. As far as I can tell from my position, the army is softening up the camp with artillery fire before sending in commando units for street-to-street fighting. When I arrived today, there was a long column armored personnel carries and armored fighting vehicles. They were manned by special forces and looked like they were waiting to deploy inside the camp once the artillery shelling lifts up.
There is a lot of heavy machine gun fire, and it is hard to tell how much of that is the army's rounds going in or Fatah al-Islam's rounds coming out. Some local eyewitnesses told me that Fatah al-Islam attacked an army position earlier in the morning, either trying to push the army back or making a break for it. Three mortar rounds apparently fired by Fatah al-Islam landed in the neighboring village of Hamra this morning. There is a lot of sniping going on from inside the camp. Any vantage point where you can get a good view of the camp runs the risk of being fired upon.
Nahr al-Bared is a scruffy place, but you get a sense of the damage to the camp's buildings looking through binoculars from a distance. From outside the camp, there is no sign at all of Palestinian refugees. Many have fled the camp in the past two weeks. But now the entrances to the camp are blocked completely and no vehicles can get through at all. Whoever went to bed in Nahr al-Bared last night is still in there now. Outside the camp, there were Red Cross workers in bright orange uniforms sipping coffee, chilling out, waiting for the moment when the fighting dies down to go into the camp and take out casualties.
Nearby Lebanese townspeople are cheering the army on. Some took up arms when the clashes began last week and the army was caught by surprise by Fatah al-Islam attacks. Today, some armed locals took up positions in the hills and in the nearby villages, on the lookout for Fatah al-Islam supporters who might try to attack the army's rear position. "We want the army to go in and finish them off," says Faisal Obeid, 35, a civilian in Hamra who joined the fighting in support of the army two weeks ago. "We are willing to go into the camps and help."
Men in Hamra are sitting around makeshift coffee shops waiting for news of the fighting. "We are all supporting the Lebanese army here," says Marwan Zaatar, 33. "These people [in Fatah al-Islam] are not true Muslims. They are a gang of terrorists." That sums up the general mood. There is tension on the front lines, but local Lebanese are in good spirits. It's been a very noisy day.