Lebanon: army chief says final assault on camp is 'imminent'

Army kills 8 militants; pounds Fatah Islam's remaining positions in Nahr el-Bared with artillery, tank fire and rocket-propelled grenades.

Lebanese troops stormed an Islamic militant hideout in a Palestinian refugee camp, killing eight fighters, state-run media reported. A Lebanese army commander said the final assault to crush the remaining Fatah Islam fighters there was "imminent." The army pounded Fatah Islam's remaining positions with artillery, tank fire and rocket-propelled grenades, the National News Agency and witnesses said. The five-hour bombardment on Saturday created plumes of heavy black smoke above the Nahr el-Bared refugee camp in northern Lebanon, witnesses reported. "An army commando unit stormed the Amqa neighborhood and, during the limited clash that ensued, all eight terrorists who were there were killed," the NNA said. The report could not be independently confirmed. The military command renewed calls Saturday for the militants to allow their families to leave the camp. The conflict in Nahr el-Bared 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 U.N. relief officials. Over 120 troops have been killed since fighting erupted May 20. Army Commander Gen. Michel Suleiman vowed to end the battle soon. "The final assault in Nahr el-Bared is imminent," Suleiman told his troops. The army refuses to halt before the militants fully surrender, but the gunmen have vowed to fight to the death. Also Saturday, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner warned that Lebanon could face a new civil war if its feuding leaders fail to resolve the political crisis threatening to tear the country apart. Kouchner delivered the warning on the second day of his visit for talks with Lebanon's rival factions. France, the former colonial power, has encouraged dialogue between the Western-backed government and the Hezbollah-led opposition, which are locked in a fierce power struggle. The opposition has held street protests since Dec. 1 outside Prime Minister Fuad Saniora's office in Beriut. It wants to force him to resign or share power in a national unity Cabinet that would give the opposition veto power. Saniora, backed by the anti-Syrian parliamentary majority and the United States, rejects the opposition's demand. Rival governments could emerge if Parliament fails to elect a new president before Nov. 25, when opposition-backed President Emile Lahoud must step down. Iran and Syria back the opposition, while Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the West support the Saniora government.