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Wives of Islamic militants describe hardships at besieged camp

Moving from house to house, surviving on canned food and having husbands – Islamic militants – waged a battle against the Lebanese army - this is how Abeer Qandaqli and her sister-in-law, Farida al-Shaabi, have lived for three months.

The two women, both in their late 20s, were among 25 wives of Fatah Islam fighters evacuated with their 38 children from the besieged Nahr el-Bared camp a week ago.

Now, the two women are living in this southern Lebanese Palestinian refugee camp, where their stories, recounted by their families, shed a bit of light on the confusion surrounding the militant group since the siege began. The two women did not talk to reporters themselves.

One of the women, Al-Shaabi, is the Palestinian wife of Shehab al-Qaddour, better known as Fatah Islam's deputy leader Abu Hureira, who was killed earlier this month. It's not clear if Mohammed al-Shaabi, Qandaqli's husband and Farida al-Shaabi's brother, is still alive.

Qandaqli's mother, Amal Sweidi, said her daughter left her home at Ein el-Hilweh camp for Nahr el-Bared two months before the fighting erupted there on May 20. She had no idea her husband was a fighter with the al-Qaida-inspired Fatah Islam, but she would have gone even if she had known, Sweidi said.

"Wouldn't you follow your husband wherever he goes?" asked Sweidi, 51.

During a brief truce three days after the war began, designed to allow civilians flee, Qandaqli sent her two sons, ages 8 and 10, out of the camp. Farida al-Shaabi also sent four of her children out, but kept her 10-month-old son with her, said her sister, Fadia al-Shaabi, speaking at her home here.

Two weeks after the fighting started, the two women were separated from their husbands and have not seen them since, their families said.

The fighting between Fatah Islam and the Lebanese army at Nahr el-Bared has killed about 148 soldiers and an unknown number of militants, who have vowed to fight until their deaths.

About a dozen of the other Fatah Islam wives who were evacuated last week, and have other various Arab nationalities, are staying at a mosque in Sidon, near Ein el-Hilweh, guarded by Lebanese security dressed in civilian clothes. The rest of the evacuated women and children are in Beddawi, another northern Palestinian refugee camp near Nahr el-Bared.

All have been interrogated by Lebanese security, but security officials said the women have refused to talk. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not allowed to speak to the media.

"They're not saying a word, except that they were in one bomb shelter and their husbands in others," said one official. "They will probably stay in Lebanon until the military operation is over, or until we can deport them to their respective countries."

Some in Palestinian camps are unhappy with the presence of the newly evacuated Fatah Islam wives.

"We prefer they stay away from our camp," said Raed Shbaitah, a senior official of the mainstream Palestinian Fatah movement in the Ein el-Hilweh camp, referring to the families. "We have enough problems of our own."

Abu Hureira, the deputy militant leader, who is Lebanese, was on the run from Lebanese law when he fled to Ein el-Hilweh more than 10 years ago and later married al-Shaabi. The camp, the largest of the 12 Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, has become a haven for extremists and criminals because of its lawlessness.

Under a 1969 Arab League agreement, the camps are off-limits to Lebanese security.

Abu Hureira started out roaming the camp's streets selling Arabic coffee or bread on a mobile cart. In 2000, he joined Asbat al-Ansar, an extremist Palestinian group based at Ein el-Hilweh and believed to have strong links with Fatah Islam. He left for Nahr el-Bared with his brother-in-law and their families a few months before the fighting started there.

Mohammed al-Shaabi had worked in a co-op, distributing food, shampoo and detergent to Ein el-Hilweh's grocery stores when he met his wife, Qandaqli. About three years ago, he also joined Asbat al-Ansar.

Many of the Fatah Islam guerrillas fighting in Nahr el-Bared had previously been with Asbat al-Ansar - an indication the two may be basically the same, merely operating under different names, or share similar ideologies and goals.

Al-Shaabi's mother-in-law, Sweidi, insisted he was not affiliated with Fatah Islam when he first left Ein el-Hilweh. "Nobody had heard of Fatah Islam," she said.

And Sweidi said she and her daughter were not happy when her son-in-law joined Asbat al-Ansar.

She called her son-in-law a "good man" but blamed Fatah Islam for her daughter's suffering. Both Qandaqli and Farida al-Shaabi lost so much weight while stuck in Nahr el-Bared that they need medical treatment, she said.

"May God's curse fall on those who caused all the suffering," said Sweidi, referring to Fatah Islam.

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