A Lebanese army helicopter on Saturday fired missiles and strafed suspected positions of Islamic militants on the edge of a Palestinian refugee camp with machine gun fire in the first air force involvement in nearly two weeks of fighting. The helicopter, a French-made Gazelle, directed machine gun fire at areas near the Mediterranean coastline. Two air-to-surface missiles were also fired during three runs over the area.
Standoff at Nahr el-Bared
It was not clear what the aircraft was firing at, but it was possibly blocking an escape route by sea for the Fatah Islam militants.
The air force's first involvement came on the second day of an offensive the army launched to defeat the militants and force their surrender from the Nahr el-Bared refugee camp where they have been holed up.
Lebanon has no fixed wing aircraft in its arsenal, but it has 33 helicopters, most of them transports.
The Lebanese army pressed ahead with an offensive to uproot the militants, also pounding their hideouts with artillery earlier Saturday, a day after sending tanks and armored vehicles to seize positions in the camp's outer neighborhoods.
Three more soldiers were killed and five wounded Saturday, military officials said, leaving the army with five dead and 15 wounded since the offensive began Friday.
Lebanese security officials said dozens of militants from the Fatah Islam group had been killed or wounded in the fighting since Friday, but the figure could not be independently verified. The group's spokesman has been unreachable since the offensive began.
The deaths raised to 37 the number of soldiers killed since fighting between the army and militants began on May 20. At least 20 civilians and about 60 militants had also been killed in the fighting before Friday's offensive. Civilian casualties could not be determined in the latest fighting since relief organizations were not allowed inside the camp.
White smoke billowed from the Nahr el-Bared camp in northern Lebanon Saturday as the thud of artillery, mixed with machine gun and automatic rifle fire, rang out in the morning. A black plume of smoke rose at midmorning, but it was not clear what was burning. A lull prevailed during the night after heavy battles Friday, with the army firing flares to monitor militants' movements and sporadically exchanging fire with the gunmen.
But the renewed bombardment in the morning signaled the army's continued push against the militants. The offensive, which began Friday, was the heaviest fighting since violence broke out between the military and Fatah Islam militants nearly two weeks ago.
The situation on the ground was unclear as journalists were pushed far away from the military zone, and media reports were conflicting on the military's achievements the previous day.
Security officials said Saturday that military units continued "mop up of pockets" of resistance on the outskirts of the camp and its perimeter. The officials said the organizational skeleton of the group had been destroyed and that some fighters had sought refuge inside the camp.
The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media, said Nahr el-Bared and its surrounding areas were divided into three zones, one under the effective control of the army, one held by the militants and a third zone controlled by civilians and Palestinian guerrilla factions refusing refuge to the militants.
Separately, an army statement Saturday said militants were taking up positions in mosques and humanitarian organizations and storing weapons there, using the remaining civilian population as "human shields" to stir up Muslims. The statement stressed the army was only targeting the militants.
The army would not speak about movements on the ground, but an army officer at the edge of the camp said Saturday that troops were continuing their operation. "We continue advancing today and hopefully we will end it. More than this we can't say." The officer spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
The United States and allied Arab countries have airlifted ammunition and supplies to help the Lebanese army, while Islamic militants have voiced support for Fatah Islam, which has threatened to take the battle outside northern Lebanon. An appeal posted Saturday on a Web site commonly used by Islamic militants called on Muslims to rise up and help Fatah Islam.
Many Palestinian refugees support the army's moves against the militants, whom they consider alien to the camp's population. Zaki, the Palestinian representative, said Friday after meeting with Prime Minister Fuad Saniora that he hoped the militants would "surrender to justice."