NAHR AL-BARED, Lebanon (AFP) -The thud of shells and the rattle of machinegun fire reverberated around a Palestinian camp in Lebanon where fighting erupted again on Sunday between troops and Islamist gunmen as a deadly standoff entered its third week.
Backed by tanks and military helicopters, the army has tightened its siege around the squalid Nahr al-Bared camp where militiamen from the Fatah al-Islam group are still holding out despite the army’s superior fire power.
Prime Minister Fuad Siniora on Saturday warned the militants to surrender or be wiped out after two days of the fiercest gunbattles since the fighting erupted in northern Lebanon on May 20.
“This is a terrorist gang,” Siniora said in an interview with Al-Arabiya television. “They have to surrender themselves and their arms.”
He said if the Islamists give up “they will face a fair trial,” but added that the army was carrying out missions against Nahr al-Bared “like surgical operations in order to eradicate this phenomenon.”
Fatah al-Islam, a tiny band of Sunni Muslim extremists which first surfaced in Lebanon only last year, vowed it would fight to the last man.
In all 95 people have been killed since May 20, including 42 soldiers and 41 Islamist gunmen, in the bloodiest internal fighting in Lebanon since the 1975-1990 civil war.
Machinegun fire could be heard from the camp on Sunday and the army responded by shelling intermittently but the intensity of the fighting has dropped, AFP correspondents reported.
“It is the start of an undeclared truce,” said a Palestinian official in the nearby refugee camp of Beddawi, which has sheltered many of the civilians who fled the fighting in Nahr al-Bared and an increasingly desperate humanitarian situation.
Siniora said the camp’s population had fallen from more than 31,000 to fewer than 3,000, including the gunmen.
He accused Fatah al-Islam, which he said had about 250 men, of preventing remaining civilians from leaving the camp in an apparent bid to use them as human shields.
Fatah al-Islam spokesman Abu Salim Taha vowed: “We will not surrender and we will fight until the last drop of blood.
“The Nahr al-Bared camp will not fall despite the destructive shelling, and the army will not be able to enter,” Taha told AFP.
On Saturday, batteries of big guns on high ground targeted the northwest of the camp, where most of the militants were believed to be entrenched. Two helicopters also used heavy machine guns, the first time choppers have been used in the battle.
However, the army lost seven men on Friday and Saturday.
Sheikh Mohammed al-Hajj, a member of a delegation of Palestinian clerics attempting to broker a negotiated solution, called for a halt to the shelling.
But the Islamist Hamas movement of Palestinian prime minister Ismail Haniya said the “tangible progress” made by the army in clearing the camp’s northern and eastern edges of militants might help mediation efforts.
“This is a victory that could open the way for a political settlement,” spokesman Ali Baraka said.
A Lebanese army spokesman said soldiers had cleaned up “pockets of resistance” around the north and east sides of Nahr al-Bared while sappers had made safe buildings booby-trapped by Fatah al-Islam on the edges of the camp.
A mainstream Palestinian commander inside the camp said at least eight militants had been killed on Friday, but that there were no casualties among civilians, as they were sheltering in areas under his control.
Abu Imad Halwani, regional commander of the Fatah movement of Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, said his men were building a sand barrier across the centre of the camp to “prevent the Fatah al-Islam fighters from slipping in among the civilian population to escape the army siege.”
He also said the trapped residents, whom he numbered at 5,000, were running out of food and water.
Halwani said the encircling troops have “not entered the camp, but have been besieging it from the north and the east,” supporting the army’s repeated insistence that its forces have remained outside Nahr al-Bared.
By longstanding convention, the army does not enter Lebanon’s 12 Palestinian refugee camps, leaving security inside to militant groups.