Beirut - Dozens of people killed in fierce clashes and a deadly blast in Beirut have compounded Lebanon's political crisis ahead of a disputed international trial for former premier Rafiq Hariri's murder.
The Syrian-backed opposition and Damascus itself warned last week that a UN Security Council decision to bypass the Lebanese parliament and impose the establishment of the tribunal would only serve to destabilise the country.
Army troops on Monday pounded Islamist militiamen in a Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon, the second day of the bloodiest internal fighting since the 1975-1990 civil war that has now killed 55 people.
In the capital, a 63-year-old woman was killed and 10 people were wounded in the Christian district of Ashrafie in a bomb blast on Sunday in a shopping centre car park.
The blast came after a three-month lull in such attacks and stirred panic among many Lebanese, already expecting the worst from the political deadlock since November between the Western-backed cabinet and Hezbollah-led opposition.
In New York, meanwhile, a UN Security Council draft resolution under Chapter Seven of its charter would make an international court mandatory for the February 2005 murder of Hariri for which Damascus has been widely blamed.
The Beirut government has approved the creation of the court, but without its pro-Syrian ministers who resigned, and the pro-Damascus speaker of parliament, Nabih Berri, has failed to convene MPs to give their endorsement.
With the country on edge, the spark came on Saturday when Islamists staged a bank robbery in a remote village of northern Lebanon. Security forces chased the suspected members of Fatah al-Islam into the port city of Tripoli.
Two army posts were attacked that night around the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared, a stronghold of the group which follows the ideology of Al-Qaeda and is reputed to be close to Syrian intelligence services.
"The Day of Fatah-Islam: a massacre which bathes Lebanon in blood and threatens its stability," read the headline in the pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat.
Ahmed Fatfat, a Lebanese minister and MP for the north, charged on Sunday that Damascus was behind the nominally Palestinian group's attempts to destabilise Lebanon.
But Damascus has long denied any links to the group, which Syrian MP Mohammed Habash said was an "enemy of all secular Arab countries".
On Monday, representatives of the main Palestinian factions in Lebanon held talks with Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, offering their help to crush the Islamic militants.
"We hope to cooperate in order to eliminate the Fatah al-Islam phenomenon, on the condition innocent civilians do not pay a high price," said Abbas Ziki, Lebanon representative of the Palestine Liberation Organisation.
Ziki, trying to distance his community from the clashes, said many of Fatah al-Islam's members were not Palestinian.
Nahr al-Bared camp, like the other 11 Palestinian refugee camps in the country, are off-limits to Lebanese security forces and remain in the control of armed Palestinian factions.
"For the first time in the history of Lebanon, Palestinian movements are now backing the army," said Fatfat.
Fatah al-Islam, meanwhile, threatened on Monday to extend attacks beyond Tripoli, Lebanon's second largest city, if the Lebanese army continued to pound its positions.