BEIRUT (Reuters) – The Lebanese army is preparing to launch a final assault against al Qaeda-inspired militants holed up at a Palestinian refugee camp in north Lebanon, political and security sources said on Wednesday.
Troops have been battling Fatah al-Islam fighters at Nahr al-Bared for nearly eight weeks in Lebanon’s worst internal violence — which has so far killed 205 people — since the 1975-1990 civil war.
The army seized all militant positions on the outskirts of the camp last month but refrained from entering its official boundaries.
A 1969 Arab agreement had 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 sources said the army was concerned it was being dragged into a war of attrition with the militants dug in inside the narrow alleys of the camp and decided to move in to crush them after they refused repeated calls for surrender.
A soldier was killed by a sniper on Tuesday. At least 87 soldiers, 75 militants and 43 civilians have been killed in the fighting that began on May 20.
The sources said the army deployed extra troops in the area and was expected to use helicopter gunships and naval boats in any assault on the coastal encampment. Palestinian sources said the last remaining civilians in the camp were already leaving ahead of the expected assault.
Most of Nahr al-Bared’s 40,000 inhabitants fled in the early days of the fighting but a few thousands have stayed behind.
The Lebanese government says Fatah al-Islam is a tool of Syrian intelligence, a charge Damascus and Fatah al-Islam deny. The group says it has no organizational ties with al Qaeda, but supports its militant ideology.
Some of its members — mainly Lebanese, Palestinians, Syrians and Saudis — have fought in Iraq. Security sources say at least 10 Saudis are among the dead militants.
The authorities have blamed the group for twin bus bombings in a Christian area near Beirut in February that killed three civilians. Investigators are also pointing a finger at the militants in the assassination of an anti-Syrian Christian government minister last November.