NAHR AL-BARED, Lebanon, (Reuters) – Advancing under a blanket of artillery and tank fire, Lebanese troops overran positions held by al Qaeda-inspired militants at a Palestinian refugee camp on Friday and 18 people were killed.
Artillery and machinegun fire shook Nahr al-Bared camp in north Lebanon from early morning to nightfall. At times shells exploded at a rate of 10 a minute.
Security sources said at least 16 people were killed, as well as two soldiers, after the fiercest fighting in two weeks.
Elite forces seized three key positions of Fatah al-Islam militants and destroyed sniper nests on the northern and eastern edges of the camp.
A statement posted on a Web site frequently used by al Qaeda urged militants in Lebanon to defend Fatah al-Islam. “Islamists, rise up and aid your brothers in Nahr al-Bared. This is your religious duty,” said the statement signed by known Qaeda-linked militant Mohamed Hakaima.
A military statement said some militants had fled the frontline and sought refuge deep in the camp, “taking civilians as human shields”. It called on the militants to surrender.
The army has been battling militants in the camp — many of them foreign fighters — since May 20 in Lebanon’s worst internal violence since the 1975-1990 civil war.
At least 84 people — 35 soldiers, 29 militants and 20 civilians — had been killed before Friday.
Security sources said 60 civilians and 18 soldiers were wounded on Friday but could not say whether the 16 who died inside the camp were militants or civilians.
A Fatah al-Islam source confirmed the group had lost some positions and suffered two dead. Palestinian sources inside the camp said there was widescale destruction in civilian areas.
The camp was set up in 1948 as a temporary tent camp to house Palestinian refugees fleeing their homes after the creation of Israel. It is now a small town with small concrete buildings and narrow alleyways.
A military source said the army destroyed several structures overlooking its positions on the camp’s edge. “Snipers have been using these outposts to fire at our soldiers,” he said.
A sniper killed a soldier on Thursday.
More than 25,000 of Nahr al-Bared’s 40,000 Palestinians have fled to the smaller Beddawi camp nearby. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) called on all parties to spare civilians and to refrain from attacking civilian infrastructure.
It said in a statement relief workers were ready to assist the wounded, and ambulances and medical supplies had been positioned on the outskirts of the camp.
Lebanese authorities have charged 20 captured members of the group with terrorism. The charges carry the death penalty.
A 1969 Arab agreement prevents the army from entering Lebanon’s 12 Palestinian camps, home to 400,000 refugees.
Troops did not appear to enter the official boundaries of the camp on Friday and the fighting at close quarters was taking place on its outskirts.
The Lebanese government had given Palestinian leaders in Lebanon a chance to find a way out of the stand-off because it fears the fighting could spark violence in other refugee camps.
A Palestinian source said the authorities appeared to have become impatient with the lack of progress by mediators and decided to step up military pressure on the militants.
Members of Lebanon’s anti-Syrian cabinet have described Fatah al-Islam as a tool of Syrian intelligence, but Damascus denies any links to the group and says its leader, Shaker al-Abssi, is on Syria’s wanted list.
Abssi has said he follows al Qaeda’s ideology, but has no direct links to Osama bin Laden’s network. Many of his estimated 300 gunmen have fought in Iraq, Palestinian sources say.
Lebanese authorities say Fatah al-Islam includes Arabs from Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Tunisia, Syria and Lebanon.