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Lebanese troops clashed with suspected al-Qaida militants who barricaded themselves in a building in the northern port city of Tripoli early Sunday, and 10 people were killed, including a soldier and six gunmen, security officials said.
The clashes Saturday night and again early Sunday in the Tripoli neighborhood of Abu Samra marked a new escalation in the army's battle with Islamic militants, as the fighting shifted from the bomb-ravaged, besieged Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr el-Bared on Tripoli's outskirts back to this city where violence first erupted May 20.
A soldier, a policeman and two family members were killed in the confrontation, which began with troops laying siege to a building where the gunmen had taken refugee after nighttime clashes in the area, the security officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
Six of the gunmen were also killed, the officials said, adding that troops stormed the building and were nearing the end of the operation.
The slain policeman happened to live in the besieged building. He confronted the gunmen, who killed him, his daughter and his uncle after failing to take the family hostage. At least 10 other people were wounded, including the policeman's wife and two relatives who were soldiers, the security officials said.
Casualties among the militants were not immediately available, but townspeople said six or seven of them were killed. However, those reports could not immediately be confirmed by Lebanese officials.
The affiliation of the militants was not clear, and officials could not tell whether they belonged to Fatah Islam or other groups.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
Prior to Saturday evening, fighting had not occurred in Tripoli since the first week of the conflict with Fatah Islam militants at Nahr el-Bared, Lebanon's worst internal violence since the 1975-90 civil war.
Sunday's army fatality brought to 80 the number of soldiers killed in the northern battles. More than 150 have been wounded since fighting erupted on May 20 when police raided a building in Tripoli in pursuit of suspected bank robbers.
At the same time, Fatah Islam gunmen in Nahr el-Bared burst out of their bases, attacking Lebanese army checkpoints and ambushing off-duty soldiers, killing more than two dozen.
The fighting has claimed the lives of at least 60 militants and more than 20 civilians. Two Lebanese soldiers have also died in recent weeks in related clashes with militants around another Palestinian refugee camp, Ein el-Hilweh, in southern Lebanon.
The Tripoli gunbattle broke out Saturday night in the Abu Samra neighborhood as the Lebanese army pursued a suspected militant, who fired back, and soon thereafter, other gunmen opened fire at an army checkpoint nearby.
The army brought in reinforcements, and an expanded gun battle ensued, with witnesses reporting hearing explosions, indicating the use of rocket propelled grenades.
Officials have said a second suspected militant had been arrested earlier Saturday during a raid on a house in Tripoli, where weapons were found.
The push against Islamic militants continued despite a government announcement that major combat in Nahr el-Bared was over.
Lebanese Defense Minister Elias Murr declared victory over the militants Thursday, and the army said the next day it had overrun Fatah Islam's main positions inside the camp.
But sporadic fighting has continued, and two top Fatah Islam leaders, Shaker al-Absi and his deputy, Abu Hureira, are still at large, along with an unknown number of fighters. They are believed to be holed up among the several thousand Palestinian civilians still inside sections of Nahr el-Bared not under army control.
The army issued a statement Saturday saying it would not halt its military offensive in the camp until "those responsible for the deaths of soldiers are brought to justice."