BEIRUT, Lebanon, (AP) -The army unleashed tank and artillery fire Monday on the hideouts of al-Qaida-inspired militants holed up in a Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon, a senior military official said.
Sporadic fighting erupted inside the camp on the outskirts of the port city of Tripoli as the army blasted Fatah Islam’s remaining positions, witnesses said.
“The fighting continues in the last stronghold of the (Fatah Islam) gunmen,” the official told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
The death of a soldier late Sunday in the fighting raised to 122 the number of troops killed since battles in the Nahr el-Bared camp erupted May 20, the official said.
Using loudspeakers, the army renewed its calls Monday for the militants to surrender or allow their families to leave the camp, the state-run National News Agency reported. But the appeal was ignored by the gunmen, it said.
Army Commander Gen. Suleiman vowed to continue the battle, saying it was a fight against terrorism and “a battle of dignity and national sovereignty.”
He called the military deaths “great sacrifices” to safeguard the country’s unity and peace.
The army has refused to halt its military offensive before the militants fully surrender, but the gunmen have vowed to fight to the death.
The militants have been firing Katyusha rockets on nearby villages almost daily, apparently to counter the army’s pressure. A Lebanese teenager was killed and a young girl was injured in such an attack earlier this month. In response to heavy military shelling Sunday, the militants fired seven Katyusha rockets overnight that landed in farm fields in the northern Akkar region, a few miles away, causing damage but no casualties, according to witnesses.
Fatah Islam spokesman Abu Salim Taha has warned the group would send suicide bombers against the army if it continued its offensive.
The conflict in Nahr el-Bared is Lebanon’s worst internal violence since the 1975-90 civil war. An undetermined number of militants — at least 60 — and more than 20 civilians have died in the fighting, according to Lebanese government and U.N. relief officials.
Meanwhile, French mediation was unable to produce any breakthroughs to ease Lebanon’s deepening political crisis.
France, the former colonial power, has encouraged dialogue between the Western-backed government of Prime Minister Fuad Saniora and the Hezbollah-led opposition, which are locked in a fierce power struggle.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner failed after two days of talks with rival Lebanese leaders to get them to agree to resume dialogue.