NAHR AL-BARED, Lebanon, (Reuters) – Islamist militants killed two Lebanese soldiers in fierce fighting at a Palestinian refugee camp in north Lebanon on Saturday, security sources said.
They said the Lebanese army was in the final phase of its campaign to defeat Fatah al-Islam and exert its control over Nahr al-Bared camp after 10 weeks of fighting that has killed at least 250 people. “We are in the final phase of the army’s operation but some of the fiercest fighting could still be ahead of us,” one source said.
Troops attacked hideouts of the al Qaeda-inspired militants deep into the camp, once home to 40,000 refugees. The militants hit back, attacking advanced army posts with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades.
Two soldiers were killed in the fighting, taking the death toll among troops to 124 since the battles, Lebanon’s worst internal violence since the 1975-1990 civil war, erupted on May 20.
More than 85 Fatah al-Islam fighters and 41 civilians have also been killed, while 65 militants have been detained and charged with terrorism — a charge carrying the death penalty.
The army said in a statement it was doing everything possible to allow scores of civilians to leave the camp but that militants were stopping their families from leaving. “The army’s leadership … reiterates its call on the gunmen to allow their family members to leave and holds them responsible for what might happen to them if they refuse,” it said.
Lebanese sources estimate the number of Fatah al-Islam family members to be around 40 while Palestinian sources say the number is double that.
Fatah al-Islam, which split from a Syrian-backed Palestinian faction last year, has Lebanese, Palestinians and other Arabs in its ranks, including some who have fought in Iraq. It says it supports al Qaeda’s ideas, but has no direct links with it.
The conflict has further undermined stability in Lebanon, already crippled by a prolonged political crisis and shaken by bombings that have killed six U.N. peacekeepers and two anti-Syrian lawmakers in the past eight months.
Lebanon had witnessed an era of relative stability from the end of the 1975-1990 civil war until the assassination of former prime minister Rafik al-Hariri in 2005.