(photo credit: AP)
Fatah Islam on Sunday rejected Lebanese government demands that the militant group surrender as the army appeared to push deeper into a Palestinian refugee camp in pursuit of the al-Qaida inspired fighters.
White smoke rose from the Nahr el-Bared camp as the army resumed its bombardment of Fatah Islam militants who retreated deep inside Nahr el-Bared during the third day of the military offensive aimed at crushing the group.
The Lebanese government has demanded that the militants surrender, saying it's the only way to stop the intensifying assault.
But Fatah Islam's deputy commander rejected the demands calling them a "dream."
"This is not only impossible, this is unthinkable. Our blood is cheaper than handing over our weapons and surrendering," Abu Hureira, a Lebanese whose real name is Shehab al-Qaddour, said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press Fatah Islam's refusal to surrender came as officials said one of its top militants had been killed in the fighting.
The Fatah Islam official, Naim Deeb Ghali, who is also known as Abu Riad, was the third-in-command of the group, Lebanese security officials said.
Abu Hureira confirmed that Ghali was killed Friday, but would not say whether he was a senior Fatah Islam official, referring to him only as "a brother."
Sunday's army artillery fire appeared directed at militant positions deep inside the camp, indicating the military was advancing further inside.
There was no way to tell exactly how deep the army had advanced, because the area had been sealed off and journalists were kept away.
But as part of the intensifying assault, the army on Saturday added air power to the battle.
A helicopter gunship was deployed for the first time since fighting began May 20, firing two missiles and strafing militant positions. The air attack was an apparent attempt to block an escape route to the Mediterranean Sea.
Four soldiers were killed and 10 wounded Saturday in the offensive aimed at uprooting the militant gunmen barricaded inside the camp on the outskirts of this Lebanese port city. Abu Hureira said six militants have been wounded since the offensive began Friday.
The casualties raised the army's deaths to 38 in two weeks. At least 20 civilians and about 60 militants have been killed, but casualties in the camp in the last two days were unknown because relief organizations were banned from entering.
In other the developments, the main road linking Tripoli with the province of Akkar and the Syrian border reopened Sunday for the first time since Friday. Vehicles were seen passing on the road that was closed for two days by Lebanese troops over fears of snipers.
A wounded Palestinian civilian also was seen being evacuated from the camp in a Palestinian Red Crescent Society ambulance. The man, in his 50s, suffered head and shoulder injury, according to reporters on the scene.
While the army launched its offensive against the militants, there also were signs that Palestinians trapped inside the camp were trying to squeeze the fighters out. Most of the camp's 31,000 refugees have fled to the nearby Beddawi camp, but at least 5,000 are believed still inside.
Abu Jaber, an official of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - a key Palestinian guerrilla faction that has stayed out of the fighting - told Lebanese Broadcasting Corp. TV that Palestinians were locking up houses and barricading camp neighborhoods to keep militants out.
Lebanese security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to make statements to media, said Nahr el-Bared had been strategically divided into three zones. The army was controlling one zone, the militants held another, while Palestinian civilians and guerrillas controlled the third and were refusing the militants sanctuary, they said.
The army alleged the armed militants had taken up positions in the camp mosques and humanitarian centers, holding civilians as "human shields." It was not clear how the military knew this or how many Palestinians were used as human shields. The militants have denied the accusation.