BEIRUT, Lebanon, (AP) -Lebanon’s army on Saturday pounded al-Qaeda-inspired Islamic militants hiding in a Palestinian refugee camp in renewed heavy clashes following a few days of intermittent fighting.
Black smoke billowed from the Nahr el-Bared camp in northern Lebanon where witnesses reported some of the heaviest army shelling since June 1, when the Lebanese army — using tanks and artillery — launched an offensive to drive the Fatah Islam militants from their positions inside the settlement.
Ambulances were seen rushing to the area of the camp, and security officials said 13 soldiers were wounded in the fighting Saturday morning. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not allowed to give official statements.
The army sent heavy reinforcements, including armored carriers and special combat units, that were spotted heading toward the camp early Saturday morning.
The main road linking Tripoli with the province of Akkar and the Syrian border was closed Saturday for the first time in several days.
It was not immediately clear if the army intended to make a final push toward the camp in its attempt to uproot the militants hiding there.
Local and Arab television stations billed it as a major army assault on militants inside the camp, but a senior Fatah Islam commander denied the reports and said fighters were holding their ground.
“We are steadfast and, God willing, we will not retreat for one moment. Let them (the army) advance if they want. … We are on the front lines across from them,” Abu Hureira, Fatah Islam’s deputy commander, told The Associated Press by telephone from inside the camp.
Abu Hureira, whose real name is Shehab al-Qaddour, dismissed as “rumors” media reports that he and Fatah Islam leader Shaker Youssef al-Absi, were wounded. He said some fighters were “lightly” injured “but it’s nothing compared to them,” he said, referring to Lebanese army casualties.
He said the militants were still fighting with the same tenacity, claiming that Fatah Islam fighters attacked an army position on the northern edge of the camp Friday and seizing weapons from Lebanese army soldiers.
Tensions in Lebanon have been high since fighting broke out May 20 between the army and Fatah Islam militants in Nahr el-Bared. Fears of spreading chaos have also been sparked by clashes at another Palestinian refugee camp, Ein el-Hilweh in the south, and several bombings in the Beirut area.
In a statement issued Friday, the army said it was “gradually taking control of the terrorists’ positions” in Nahr el-Bared to end this “abnormal phenomenon … imposed on Lebanon.” The statement did not say how many militant positions were overtaken so far.
More than 120 people, including at least 60 Fatah Islam militants, 46 soldiers and 20 civilians, have been reported killed in the fighting — the worst internal violence in Lebanon since the 1975-90 civil war.
Recent civilian casualties are not known because the camp has been closed to journalists and aid workers for days. Though most of Nahr el-Bared’s residents have fled, thousands remain trapped inside.