NAHR AL-BARED, Lebanon, (Reuters) – Lebanese troops pounded a refugee camp in north Lebanon on Saturday where barricaded al Qaeda-inspired militants clashed with them and fired at least two Katyusha-type rockets.
The army and Fatah al-Islam militants have fought often ferocious battles at the coastal Nahr al-Bared refugee camp for nearly eight weeks with no sign the Islamist militants will heed calls to surrender.
The fighting has caused the deaths of at least 219 people since May 20, with soldier deaths alone nearing 100, making it Lebanon’s worst internal violence since the 1975-1990 civil war.
Security sources said a Lebanese soldier died early on Saturday from wounds inflicted in Friday’s battles.
Witnesses said the army fired artillery and tank shells at Nahr al-Bared while the militants responded with sniper fire and also fired two rockets, one of which failed to explode. The rockets landed in a nearby village but caused no casualties.
On Friday, the militants fired 18 of the 107 mm rockets, wounding two civilians.
The military has since Thursday increased its bombardment of the besieged camp, anxious not to get sucked into a war of attrition with the well-trained and well-armed militants. But the militants have responded fiercely, killing 11 soldiers and wounding 48 in the last three days.
At least 98 soldiers, 76 militants and 45 civilians have been killed in fighting with Islamist militants in the camp and other areas since May 20.
A 1969 Arab agreement banned Lebanese security forces from entering Palestinian camps. The agreement was annulled by the Lebanese parliament in the mid-1980s but the accord effectively stayed in place. The violence has further undermined stability in Lebanon, where a paralysing 8-month political crisis has been compounded by bombings in and around Beirut, the assassination of an anti-Syrian legislator and a fatal attack on U.N. peacekeepers.
Lebanese politicians are meeting in France on Saturday and Sunday in an effort to find ways to resume dialogue after months of political stalemate. The country has yet to recover from last year’s war between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas.