TRIPOLI, Lebanon (AFP) – At least five Islamist militants were killed in a clash with the army when troops raided a suspected hideout in northern Lebanon on Thursday, the 40th day of a deadly showdown.
Security officials said five were killed in and near Qalamoun, a village south of the port city of Tripoli, in an army raid following a tip-off that Fatah al-Islam was using the wooded area as a hideout.
An army spokesman said six fighters were killed while local residents reported that military helicopters were used to fire on the militants.
The site, which has caves that can be used as hiding places, was near where the Al-Qaeda-inspired militants of Fatah al-Islam mounted a deadly ambush on the army at the outbreak of the violence on May 20.
In south Lebanon, assailants late Wednesday hurled two grenades at an army checkpoint on the outskirts of Ain al-Helweh, a Palestinian camp outside Sidon, another Mediterranean port city, a Palestinian official said.
Munir al-Makdah, an official of the mainstream Fatah group, said the attack in the Taamir district of Ain al-Helweh caused no casualties and that soldiers fired back at the unidentified attackers.
On June 4, Islamist militants of Jund al-Sham, another shadowy group, fought a gunbattle with the army that killed two soldiers and two militants.
Extremist groups have long been established in Ain al-Helweh, the largest of 12 refugee camps that are home to more than half of the estimated 400,000 Palestinians in Lebanon.
By longstanding convention the Lebanese army does not enter the camps, leaving security there to Palestinian groups.
Jund al-Islam has been trying to set up sandbag barricades in Ain al-Helweh but have been prevented by mainstream Palestinian forces, another source at the camp said on condition of anonymity.
Lebanese troops on Wednesday night shelled the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp to the north of Tripoli where Fatah al-Islam has been entrenched since the May 20 outbreak of its battle with the army, the military said.
Sporadic gunfire and the occasional blasts of shelling were heard around the Palestinian camp on Thursday.
Defence Minister Elias Murr told satellite news channel Al-Arabiya his troops now control 80 percent of the bombed-out camp and that only about 60 diehard fighters remain.
More than 300 Islamists have been killed or wounded, he said, while another defence source told AFP that the group has lost 200 men with about 100 suspected fighters arrested.
According to a count from official figures, at least 167 people, including 82 soldiers, have now been killed in and around Nahr al-Bared where fewer than 1,000 of the camp’s original 31,000 civilian inhabitants are still living.
Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, on a visit to France on Tuesday, told reporters that Syria was sending arms to two Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, without naming them.
The splinter group Fatah al-Intifada and the radical Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, both of which are based in Damascus, have been reinforced in recent weeks, he charged.
A UN report released on Tuesday said international security experts should be deployed to help a new Lebanese border force and stop arms smuggling from neighbouring Syria, which has denied accusations of supporting Fatah al-Islam.