TRIPOLI, Lebanon, (AP) -More Lebanese soldiers died Saturday as the army pressed ahead with an offensive to uproot al-Qaeda-inspired militants, pounding their hideouts in a Palestinian refugee camp with artillery, a day after sending tanks and armored vehicles to seize positions in the camp’s outer neighborhoods.
Three more soldiers were killed and five wounded Saturday, military officials said, leaving the army with five dead and 15 wounded since the offensive began Friday.
Lebanese security officials said dozens of militants from the Fatah Islam group had been killed or wounded in the fighting since Friday, but the figure could not be independently verified, and a senior militant commander said only two fighters had been wounded since the fighting began.
Abu Hureira, deputy leader of Fatah Islam, conceded his fighters abandoned some positions in the northern end of the Nahr el-Bared camp in a “tactical” withdrawal. But he denied the army was advancing and vowed never to surrender.
“Morale was high. Let them come. We are ready,” he said of the army, denying media reports that he and the leader, Shaker Youssef al-Absi were wounded. With the sound of firing clearly heard as he spoke, Abu Hureira said he was on the front line fighting off the army attack and al-Absi was safe in rear positions.
The army deaths raised to 37 the number of soldiers killed since fighting between the army and militants began on May 20. At least 20 civilians and about 60 militants had also been killed in the fighting before Friday’s offensive. Civilian casualties could not be determined in the latest fighting since relief organizations were not allowed inside the camp.
White smoke billowed from the Nahr el-Bared camp in northern Lebanon Saturday as the thud of artillery, mixed with machine gun and automatic rifle fire, rang out in the morning. A black plume of smoke rose at midmorning, but it was not clear what was burning. A lull prevailed during the night after heavy battles Friday, with the army firing flares to monitor militants’ movements and sporadically exchanging fire with the gunmen.
But the renewed bombardment in the morning signaled the army’s continued push against the militants. The offensive, which began Friday, was the heaviest fighting since violence broke out between the military and Fatah Islam militants nearly two weeks ago.
The situation on the ground could not be independently verified. Journalists were pushed far away from the military zone, and media reports were conflicting on the military’s achievements the previous day.
The military announced Friday it responded to militants’ fire by seizing positions on the outer ring of the camp that Fatah Islam had used to attack the army. But the heavy pounding and rush of armor into the camp indicated the military was determined to squeeze the militants, who retreated into the narrow, winding streets and apartment buildings inside the camp.
Security officials said Saturday that military units continued “mop up of pockets” of resistance on the outskirts of the camp and its perimeter. The officials said the organizational skeleton of the group had been destroyed and that some fighters had sought refuge inside the camp.
The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media, said Nahr el-Bared and its surrounding areas were divided into three zones, one under the effective control of the army, one held by the militants and a third zone controlled by civilians and Palestinian guerrilla factions refusing refuge to the militants.
Separately, an army statement Saturday said militants were taking up positions in mosques and humanitarian organizations and storing weapons there, using the remaining civilian population as “human shields” to stir up Muslims. The statement stressed the army was only targeting the militants.
The army would not speak about movements on the ground, but an army officer at the edge of the camp said Saturday that troops were continuing their operation. “We continue advancing today and hopefully we will end it. More than this we can’t say.” The officer spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
The military has demanded the Fatah Islam fighters surrender and promised to pursue them if they did not. More troops were being sent north, a possible sign the campaign would intensify.
A statement Saturday called on the militants to “drop their weapons and surrender to the army,” promising them a “fair trial.”
The Palestinian representative to Lebanon, Abbas Zaki, said Friday the army would not storm the camp, where several thousand civilians remain trapped. Nahr el-Bared, like the other 11 Palestinian camps in Lebanon, has been off-limits to Lebanese authorities under a nearly 40-year-old agreement that allowed Palestinians to run their own affairs.
The fighting between the army and the Fatah Islam group erupted in the northern port city of Tripoli and the adjacent Nahr el-Bared camp on May 20 in the worst internal violence in Lebanon since the end of the 1975-90 civil war.
The offensive began Friday after political support grew for the army to resolve the conflict through military action. Many Palestinian refugees also wanted the army to finish off the group, and Zaki has expressed hope the militants would surrender.
However, limiting the military operation to the camp’s perimeter could be an effort to avoid — at least for now — enraging Palestinians in other refugee camps across the country.
Some Lebanese security officials consider Fatah Islam a radical Sunni Muslim group with ties to al-Qaeda or at least al-Qaeda-style militancy and doctrine. Others say it is a front for Syrian military intelligence aimed at destabilizing Lebanon — a claim Syria denies.
The United States and allied Arab countries have airlifted ammunition and supplies to help the Lebanese army, while Islamic militants have voiced support for Fatah Islam, which has threatened to take the battle outside northern Lebanon. An appeal posted Saturday on a Web site commonly used by Islamic militants called on Muslims to rise up and help Fatah Islam.