Fatah Islam militants request evacuation of wounded fighters

Top Lebanese officer: "We have no objection if they want to turn themselves in. This is what we have been urging them to do since the beginning."

Islamic extremists fighting Lebanese army soldiers at a Palestinian refuge camp have requested that wounded fighters be allowed to evacuate the besieged camp, a security official and a mediator said Monday. Sheik Mohammed al-Haj of the Palestinian Scholars' Association said he was contacted Sunday by Fatah Islam spokesman Abu Salim Taha, who requested his mediation with the Lebanese army command for the wounded fighters to be evacuated. The Association has been mediating between the militants and the army since fighting broke out in the Nahr el-Bared camp three months ago. On Friday, the families of the besieged militants who had been caught inside the camp were evacuated, clearing the way for a final military assault against remaining fighters inside. That evacuation was arranged following contacts between al-Haj, the army command and Taha. A senior military officer on Monday confirmed that evacuating wounded soldiers was a possibility that was being considered but said "there is nothing serious or final yet." "We have no objection if they want to turn themselves in. This is what we have been urging them to do since the beginning," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with military rules. An estimated 70 fighters now remain holed up deep inside the coastal camp, just outside the northern port city of Tripoli, where fighting has raged since May 20 in what has become Lebanon's worst internal violence since the 1975-90 civil war. At least nine militants are believed to be seriously wounded. The camp's more than 30,000 civilian residents fled in the first weeks of the fighting. The army has refused to halt its offensive until the militants completely surrender, but the gunmen have vowed to fight to the death. The officer said the number of soldiers who have been killed since the fighting started now stood at 148. An unknown number of militants have been killed and more than 20 civilians.