Lebanese helicopters pound Nahr el-Bared

Fighting between Lebanese troops and Islamic militants resumed on Tuesday after a two-day lull.

Nahr el-Bared 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
Nahr el-Bared 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
Fighting between Lebanese troops and al-Qaida-inspired Islamic militants resumed on Tuesday after a two-day lull, with military helicopters bombing a besieged Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon, the state-run National News Agency reported. Army helicopters fired at least three rockets at suspected underground bunkers of Fatah Islam militants in the Saassa neighborhood of the Nahr el-Bared camp, destroying a nearby building, the report said. Earlier in the day, sporadic fighting raged inside the camp, located on the outskirts of the northern port city of Tripoli. Troops pounded the militants' remaining hideouts with artillery and tank fire, the NNA said, adding that military bomb experts dismantled mines and booby traps planted by Fatah Islam gunmen in the camp's destroyed buildings to block the army's advance on the militants' last stronghold. Last week, army helicopters dropped bombs weighing 400 kilograms (880 pounds) each capable of leveling entire buildings, according to local media. The army started using the heavier bombs in a bid to finish off Fatah Islam militants still hiding in a small section of the war-ravaged camp. A senior military official said Tuesday the army will continue its attacks until "this (Fatah Islam) phenomenon is eliminated." Asked if the army has set a deadline for a final assault to finish off the militants, the official, speaking on condition of anonymity according to army regulations, told The Associated Press that there are "no dates set. The military will take the time needed to finish its job." The Nahr el-Bared fighting, which entered its 101st day Tuesday, has dragged on to become Lebanon's worst internal violence since the 1975-90 civil war. Some 148 soldiers have been killed since the fighting erupted on May 20. Also, an unknown number of militants and more than 20 civilians have been killed. The army has refused to halt its offensive until the militants completely surrender, but the gunmen have vowed to fight to the death. Army Commander Gen. Michel Suleiman has said that up to 70 Fatah Islam fighters remain holed up in the camp. When the fighting broke out more than three months ago, the number of Fatah Islam fighters was estimated at 360. Sheik Mohammed al-Haj of the Palestinian Scholars' Association said he was contacted Sunday by Fatah Islam spokesman Abu Salim Taha, who asked he mediate with the Lebanese army to allow the evacuation of wounded militants. There was no indication the army would allow the evacuation. The NNA has estimated that about some 40 fighters are wounded, nine of them believed to be seriously wounded. The scholars' group has been mediating between the militants and the army since fighting broke out. Last week, it successfully brokered the evacuation of militants' families from the camp. The camp's more than 30,000 civilian residents fled in the first weeks of the fighting. Meanwhile, six Fatah Islam suspects were arrested in the past few days, bringing to 113 the number of the group's fighters in custody, a court official said Tuesday. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media. Terrorism charges have been filed against 107 suspected Fatah Islam members, including some in custody and some still at large, such as group leader Shaker Youssef al-Absi. They have been charged with "carrying out terrorist acts that have led to the death of a large number of officers and soldiers in the Lebanese army." Fatah Islam has also been blamed for past attacks inside Lebanon. Authorities have said that group members confessed to the February bombing of two buses near Beirut that killed three people and wounded 20.