Lebanese army mistreats fleeing Palestinian men

The Lebanese army clashed with Islamic militants in a northern Palestinian refugee camp on Wednesday while a leading human rights watchdog criticized the military for mistreating some Palestinian men fleeing the besieged camp.

Most of the 31,000 residents of Nahr el-Bared, near the northern city of Tripoli, have fled the camp since fighting between the Lebanese army and Fatah Islam militants holed up inside it began on May 20.

However, the International Red Cross said that between 3,000 and 6,000 civilians remain behind.

Also Wednesday, an anti-Syrian lawmaker and nine others were killed in an explosion that rocked central Beirut. The 65-year-old lawmaker, Walid Eido, was the seventh opponent of Damascus to be killed in two years in this conflict-ridden country.

The Lebanese army said Wednesday that another soldier was killed in the Nahr el-Bared fighting the previous day, bringing the number of troops killed since clashes erupted to 61. At least 60 Fatah Islam militants and at least 20 civilians have also died.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a statement Wednesday that the Lebanese troops have "arbitrarily detained and physically abused some Palestinian men fleeing the fighting in Nahr al-Bared refugee camp."

The statement came as more Palestinian refugees were expected to leave the camp later Wednesday.

Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director of Human Rights Watch, said that while the Lebanese may question Palestinians leaving Nahr el-Bared about the Fatah Islam militants, "resorting to physical abuse is clearly against Lebanese law and international human rights standards."

The group said the military detained a 21-year-old Palestinian from Nahr al-Bared at different locations for four days for interrogation, during which he was allegedly punched and slapped by army interrogators.

In another case, it said the army interrogated three young Palestinian men in a private house near Nahr al-Bared. Two of them said Lebanese military intelligence subjected them to "kicks, punches and beatings with rifle butts."

But a senior Lebanese military official dismissed the HRW report as "totally baseless."

"The Lebanese army has not exercised any act of violence against anyone. It has always abided by laws and rules (pertaining to treatment of detainees)," the official told The Associated Press. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said the army has affirmed its concern for the dignity, safety and property of the Palestinians.

Because of the incidents, Whitson was worried that "some Palestinians who want to flee Nahr al-Bared may stay put for fear of beatings and abuse by the army when they leave" and urged the government to ensure civilians can leave the camp safely and without fear.

Meanwhile, security official, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media, said that Lebanese troops, backed by heavy artillery barrages, have made advances toward Fatah Islam positions.

Nahr el-Bared's southern entrance, that has been used as a safe passage to evacuate civilians from the camp and send in food and medicine, reopened Wednesday after being shut for several hours Tuesday following mortar attacks.

The violence at Nahr el-Bared has also threatened to spread to the other 11 Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. Two other soldiers were killed in clashes last week with militants in another camp, Ein el-Hilweh, in southern Lebanon.