Nahr al-Bared, Lebanon The Lebanese military stopped its bombardment of a Palestinian refugee camp Tuesday in an unofficial cease-fire with Islamic radicals inside, giving the camp's trapped families their first chance of escape after three days of fighting.
Scores of vehicles streamed out of the Nahr al-Bared camp on Lebanon's northern coast after Lebanese tanks and artillery fell silent in late afternoon, joining a cease-fire begun by the heavily armed Fatah al-Islam group hours earlier.
Men, women and stunned-looking children were packed into vehicles bumping down the roads out of the camp. "This is the Lebanese's destruction!" one woman cried.
Fatah al-Islam formed in the camp within the past two years, Lebanese authorities said, and includes fewer than 300 fighters, many of them from other Muslim countries. The group alarmed Lebanon's relatively weak military with the size of its arsenal of automatic weapons, machine guns and shoulder-mounted missiles, and with the ferocity of its fighting. Its leader claims ties to al-Qaida.
Clashes began Sunday after militants in the group robbed a bank in the nearby city of Tripoli. Fighting broke out across the center of the city, killing dozens on both sides and leading to battles Monday and early Tuesday at the camp, which is home to an estimated 35,000 people.
Tens of thousands remained in the camp late Tuesday, and the extent of casualties inside remained unknown. The Red Cross said it had received 35 bodies, including civilians and militants, since Sunday. The figure did not include dead or wounded handled by other humanitarian agencies or by residents. Some of those who left the camp Tuesday were wounded.
Lebanon's military said 31 members of security forces were killed in what was some of the country's fiercest fighting since the 1975-1990 civil war.
It was unclear whether the military would seek a formal cease-fire. The militants had proposed a truce at least since Monday, the same day that Lebanon's cabinet called on the army to keep fighting until Fatah al-Islam was destroyed.
Departing residents testified to the battle's toll on the U.N.-administered camp, which was established in 1949 to accommodate refugees who had fled territory that became northern Israel. Lebanon is home to 12 Palestinian camps and about 400,000 Palestinians. A 1969 accord forbids Lebanese troops to enter the camps.
Residents said many of those fleeing Tuesday came from the area of the camp where many of the Islamic fighters had sheltered. The clearing away of civilians from that area opened the possibility of a strengthened military assault on the militants' base.
Lebanese military officials said their fire was concentrated on targets inside the camp from which they had drawn fire, but video from inside the camp Tuesday showed widespread destruction, with some buildings in ruins and at times still in flames.
"Massive destruction," said Mohammed Akl, whose brother drove into the camp to rescue Akl after fighting collapsed his house, injuring his leg. "The room where I was staying was the only one undamaged," Akl said. "Everything else was destroyed."