First 100 families return to battered Lebanon camp

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NAHR AL-BARED, Lebanon, Oct 10 (Reuters) The first 100 Palestinian families returned today to Nahr al-Bared refugee camp, which was largely destroyed in a 15-week battle between Lebanese troops and Islamist militants, witnesses said.

The army took control of the camp in northern Lebanon in early September after defeating al Qaeda-inspired Fatah al-Islam militants entrenched there. The fighting had forced most of the camp's 40,000 residents to flee to the nearby Beddawi camp.

A convoy of buses took the families from Beddawi to Nahr al-Bared, where they were given relief packages containing bottled water, canned food, bread and dates.

The families were returning to damaged or burned homes. Army troops were scrutinising their identity cards at the entrance to the camp. Some individuals were turned away, the witnesses said.

''I'm so happy about going back, even if it's to just one inch of what's left of my home. It's as symbolic as returning to Palestine,'' said 60-year-old Um Akram Awdeh, in a waiting bus.

Today's group was the first of many batches of families scheduled to return in the next few days to the shattered coastal camp near Lebanon's second largest city, Tripoli.

UNRWA, the UN agency which cares for Palestinian refugees, brought in several trucks loaded with food and water.

More than 400 people, including 168 soldiers and 222 militants, were killed in the Nahr al-Bared fighting, Lebanon's worst internal violence since the 1975-1990 civil war.

The Lebanese government has put the cost of relief for the refugees, reconstruction of the camp and help for nearby municipalities at 382.5 million dollars.

International donors have pledged about 20 million dollars in addition to 12 million dollars promised by Saudi Arabia and million by the United Arab Emirates.

REUTERS SZ KP1320

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