Lebanese officer, soldier killed in refugee camp clashes

Army says it won't not halt its military offensive until Fatah Islam fighters in Nahr el-Bared either surrender or are killed.

lebanese army 88 (photo credit: )
lebanese army 88
(photo credit: )
A Lebanese officer and a soldier were killed in overnight fighting with al-Qaida-inspired Islamic militants barricaded in a Palestinian refugee camp in the country's north, a senior military official said Friday. The deaths raised to 121 the number of troops killed since fighting with Fatah Islam militants entrenched in the Nahr el-Bared camp erupted May 20, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media. The official said the army would not halt its military offensive until Fatah Islam fighters either surrender or are killed. "The fighting is now raging in a small area in the old camp," the official told The Associated Press, referring to the densely populated neighborhoods where most of the remaining fighters are thought to be barricaded. "The army will continue its military operations until all Fatah Islam members give themselves up or are killed." The development came as France's Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner was expected late Friday in Beirut, for a follow-up meeting on mediation between Lebanese rival factions as part of a French bid to end the political crisis that has paralyzed Lebanon. Lebanese troops Friday kept pounding Fatah Islam's remaining positions inside Nahr el-Bared with tank and artillery fire, in the latest attempt to force the militants to surrender. Last week, the army used loudspeakers to urge the militants to surrender, but they have vowed to fight to the death. The state-run National News Agency said Friday that sporadic fighting was taking place deep in the small area of the camp where Fatah Islam gunmen are believed to hiding. The NNA report said artillery fire reverberated in the war-ravaged camp, located on the outskirts of the northern port city of Tripoli, as the army made advances, capturing more buildings, positions and hideouts used by the militants to fire on the troops. NNA said that in one of the captured buildings, the army uncovered a two-room fully furnished shelter with arms, ammunition, military uniforms and detonators. The report said the shelter, in the camp's Saasaa neighborhood where militants are thought to use underground shelters and bunkers, was equipped with surveillance cameras to allow its occupants to see what was going on around it. The shelter, also apparently used as an operations room, is believed to belong to Fatah Islam leader Shaker al-Absi or his top aides, the NNA said. The whereabouts of Absi and his deputy Abu Hureira, a Lebanese whose real name is Shehab al-Qaddour, have been unknown since the fighting started two months ago. The military official said the army has now seized more sophisticated weapons and equipment left behind by the militants who fled to the so-called "old camp." The army is also "dismantling booby traps and cleaning bomb-rigged buildings," he said. The militants have recently begun firing Katyusha rockets on nearby villages almost daily, in an apparent new tactic to ease the army's pressure. A Lebanese teenager was killed and a young girl was injured last week in such an attack. Fatah Islam spokesman Abu Salim Taha has warned the group would send suicide bombers against the army if it continued its offensive. The conflict with the militants is Lebanon's worst internal violence since the 1975-90 civil war. An undetermined number of militants - at least 60 - and more than 20 civilians have died in the fighting, according to Lebanese government and UN relief officials. The exact number of Fatah Islam militants arrested since the group clashed with the army has not been disclosed. But Defense Minister Elias Murr said last month that about 40 militants, including some with suspected al-Qaida links, had been arrested.