MOHAMMARA, Lebanon, (AP) – Lebanese soldiers searched through devastated buildings and scorched bushes along the Mediterranean coastline in northern Lebanon Monday, hunting for fugitives a day after the army crushed the remnants of a militant group and ended a three-month siege at a Palestinian refugee camp.
Meanwhile, the body of the leader of the militant Fatah Islam group, Shaker al-Absi, was identified by his wife at a hospital in the port city of Tripoli, said Nasser Adra, the hospital’s director. Two captured militants also identified the body as al-Absi’s.
However, Adra told The Associated Press that the hospital could not officially confirm the identity, which would have to come from judicial authorities after a DNA test.
Al-Absi, a Palestinian linked to the late leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, has not been seen or heard from since early in the fighting that erupted May 20.
The army searched Monday for Fatah Islam fighters that may have escaped Sunday’s battle at the Nahr el-Bared camp. Patrol boats were out looking for bodies in the sea. Military helicopters flew over the camp in low reconnaissance runs, as smoke from smoldering fires rose into the sky.
The camp remained off limits to its Palestinian civilian population, which had fled in the fighting’s early days. But the main north-south highway outside was open to traffic.
Inside the camp, military sappers combed destroyed neighborhoods, looking for booby traps, unexploded shells and mines. Investigators, meanwhile, were questioning captured militants.
The search followed Sunday’s final battle between the army and al-Qaida-inspired Fatah Islam militants that left 39 of them and three soldiers dead, as the militants attempted a dawn breakout from Nahr el-Bared.
Some of the militants tried to sneak out through a tunnel, while another group tried to escape through a different path. Outside fighters arrived to help them, security officials said.
The Army quickly deployed reinforcements, blocked surrounding roads, set fires to nearby fields to deny fleeing militants a hiding place and put up checkpoints as far as Beirut and southern Lebanon. Villagers of nearby settlements, armed with guns and sticks, also came out to help the army and protect their houses, the state TV reported.
By the end of the day, the camp was in Lebanese army control and authorities declared victory over Fatah Islam. Officials said the army killed 39 militants and captured 20. It was not immediately known how many militants managed to escape.
The army said three soldiers were killed in Sunday’s fighting and two on Saturday, raising to 158 the number of troops who have died in the conflict — Lebanon’s worst internal fighting since the 1975-90 civil war. More than 20 civilians and more than 60 militants also have been killed.
Prime Minister Fuad Saniora declared victory “over the terrorists in Nahr el-Bared,” saying in a televised speech Sunday that this was “an hour of pride, victory and joy.”
At the news of the militants’ collapse, villagers, townspeople and troops celebrated in the streets with celebratory gunfire, waving Lebanese flags and flashing victory signs into the night. Other regions celebrated with fireworks, drumming and dancing.
Fatah Islam had set up its headquarters at Nahr el-Bared since last fall. Some officials say the group is a branch of al-Qaeda that wants to make Lebanon and the Palestinian refugee camps there a safe haven. The U.S. State Department has called it an offshoot of a Syrian-backed militia, Fatah al-Intifada.
The camp’s siege began in late May, when police raided militants’ hideouts in Tripoli. Fighters ambushed army troops called in to help, after which the army surrounded the camp with tanks and artillery.
Families of the militants — women and children — were evacuated in late August, the last civilians to leave the camp. Before Sunday, Lebanese officials had said up to 70 militants remained in the bombed-out camp — down from an estimated 360 fighters when the fighting erupted.