Lebanese army helicopters stepped up raids today on al-Qaida-inspired Islamic militants barricaded in a Palestinian refugee camp in the country’s north, after five soldiers were killed, a senior military official said.
A soldier died overnight and four other soldiers died in renewed fighting with Fatah Islam gunmen over the past two days in the besieged Nahr el-Bared camp, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity according to army regulations.
The deaths raised to 153 the number of soldiers killed since fighting erupted on May 20, he said.
“The army is making a noticeable progress in its push against the gunmen, capturing new areas in the camp,” the official said.
The fighting in the Nahr el-Bared, on the outskirts of the northern port city of Tripoli, has dragged on to become Lebanon’s worst internal violence since the 1975-90 civil war.
In addition to the army’s high casualties, an unknown number of militants and more than 20 civilians have been killed.
Army helicopters today fired a number of rockets at suspected underground militant’s bunkers and shelters in the camp’s Saassa neighbourhood, the state-run National News Agency reported.
One of the buildings where Fatah Islam gunmen are believed to be hiding in an underground shelter was directly hit in the raids, the report said. In addition to the air bombardment, the army pounded the militants’ hideouts with artillery and tank fire, the NNA reported.
Earlier this month, the army started using heavier bombs – weighing 880 pounds each and capable of levelling entire buildings – in a bid to finish off the militants still hiding in a small section of the camp.
The army has refused to halt its offensive until the militants completely surrender, but the gunmen have vowed to fight to the death.
Lebanese officials say 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 was estimated at 360.
Meanwhile, a Palestinian cleric, Sheikh Mohammed al-Haj of the Palestinian Scholars’ Association, continued his efforts to arrange for the evacuation of wounded militants from the camp, NNA said. There was no indication the army would allow the evacuation.
About 40 fighters are estimated to be 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.
Fatah Islam has been blamed for past attacks inside Lebanon. A group has confessed to the February bombing of two buses near Beirut that killed three people and wounded 20, authorities said. Also, more than 100 suspected Fatah Islam members are in police custody facing terrorism charges.
Also Friday, a delegation from the International Committee of the Red Cross visited wives of Fatah Islam fighters in the southern port city of Sidon, offering medical aid to the wounded.
A female nurse examined a number of the veiled women and treated some for minor injuries, according to Riad Dbouk, the ICRC delegate in south Lebanon.
Some 25 wives of Fatah Islam fighters evacuated with their 38 children from the Nahr el-Bared camp last week.
The women are staying at a mosque in Sidon, near the Palestinian refugee camp of Ein el-Hilweh, guarded by Lebanese security.