NAHR AL-BARED, Lebanon (AFP) – The Lebanese army and Islamist militants of Fatah al-Islam traded fire on Thursday as the siege of a Palestinian refugee camp north of Tripoli entered its 33rd day.
An AFP journalist said the military responded with tank and mortar shells to bursts of machine-gun fire from the Sunni Muslim militants, even as Palestinian negotiators continued to try to mediate an end to the deadly standoff.
The army has since Wednesday been deployed in the new sector of Nahr al-Bared camp, a high-rise spillover from the boundaries of the original camp delineated by the United Nations in 1948.
The remaining pockets of resistance are now thought to be concentrated within the perimeter of the original camp, one of 12 refugee camps housing an estimated half of the 400,000 Palestinians in Lebanon.
“All the buildings in the new (northern) part of the camp where the terrorists were dug in have been taken, and one could say fighting has stopped in this area,” an army officer told AFP on condition of anonymity.
Troops have continued to secure their hold on the newer sector, which the military pounded incessantly with high explosives for weeks to expel the militants, he said.
The Western-backed government of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora and the military have both said the battle will continue until Fatah al-Islam is wiped out.
Palestinian clerics acting as mediators on Wednesday met the army’s intelligence chief General Georges Khoury for talks on deploying a Palestinian force between the two sides in the old camp.
About 2,000 refugees are thought to be still inside Nahr al-Bared.
At least 141 people, including 74 soldiers, have been killed in the deadliest internal violence since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war that comes amid increasing political and security insecurity in deeply-divided Lebanon.
The overall Fatah al-Islam toll is not known, but at least 50 militants are known to have been killed since the standoff began on May 20.
Syria said late Wednesday it was closing a third border crossing with Lebanon, citing the continuing clashes at Nahr al-Bared.
The interior ministry decided to close the Jussa-Al-Qaa post “until calm has returned to northern Lebanon,” Syria’s official SANA news agency said.
Two more border posts, also in central-western Syria, were closed by Damascus when the conflict erupted more than a month ago, while another two, including on the Damascus-Beirut highway, remain open.
Lebanon’s parliamentary majority charges that the militants entrenched at Nahr al-Bared are linked to the Syrian intelligence services seeking to stir insecurity, an allegation Damascus denies.
An Arab League delegation was in Beirut on Thursday meeting Lebanese leaders for a third day of talks that it hopes can break the political stalemate that has plagued the country for the past seven months.
Lebanon has been paralysed by a chasm between its pro- and anti-Syrian camps since the opposition, led by the powerful Shiite group Hezbollah, quit the government last November.