NAHR AL-BARED, Lebanon, (Reuters) – Lebanese troops pounded al Qaeda-inspired militants dug in at a Palestinian refugee camp in north Lebanon on Friday after the gunmen refused demands they give themselves up.
Artillery and tanks blasted several areas of the squalid Nahr al-Bared camp, where Fatah al-Islam fighters have shown stiff resistance in nearly three weeks of often ferocious battles.
Camp resident Wissam Badran told Reuters he had helped pull a man, woman and two children from under the rubble after a shell hit a house sheltering 10 civilians. He initially thought they were dead. “They lost consciousness. We thought they were dead, but thank God, they are alive,” Badran said by telephone from inside Nahr al-Bared. Six others were lightly wounded, he said.
Heavy machinegun fire echoed across the area as fires raged inside and clouds of smoke billowed over the camp, abandoned by most of its 40,000 residents. “Army units are … gradually taking control of the terrorists’ positions with the aim of ending this abnormal situation that was imposed on Lebanon,” an army statement said.
The fierce fighting resumed after two days of mostly sporadic clashes and came hours after Lebanese Islamists failed in a bid to convince Fatah al-Islam militants to surrender. But Lebanese sources said the Islamic Action Front, which includes Sunni politicians and clerics, would continue its efforts to find a solution to the standoff.
The fighting erupted on May 20 when the militants attacked army units deployed around Nahr al-Bared after one of their hideouts in a nearby city was stormed. At least 115 people, including 47 soldiers and 38 militants, have been killed.
The Lebanese authorities have demanded the unconditional surrender of the gunmen, who have vowed to fight to the death.
Fatah al-Islam was officially formed late last year. Its leader, veteran Palestinian guerrilla Shaker al-Abssi, says he shares the same ideology as al Qaeda but has no organisational links with that group.
Many of his men are foreign Arab fighters, some of whom have fought in Iraq.
The battles, the worst internal conflict since the 1975-1990 civil war, have threatened to spread to other parts of the country with deadly clashes earlier this week at another refugee camp and five bomb blasts in civilian areas in and near Beirut.
A bomb exploded in a Christian industrial area north of Beirut on Thursday night, killing one civilian and wounding four, security sources said.
The authorities have charged 30 detained members of Fatah al-Islam with terrorism, charges that carry the death penalty.
Security forces also dismantled this week what they say is an al Qaeda cell preparing for car bomb attacks in Lebanon, arresting eight people and seizing weapons and explosives.
On Friday, security sources said border authorities had arrested nine Iraqis trying to enter Lebanon from Syria with forged Romanian passports. It was not known why they wanted to come to Lebanon.