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Army pounds militants in north Lebanon camp

Lebanese troops shelled al Qaeda-inspired militants in the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp on Saturday, almost three weeks after fighting broke out.
/ Source: Reuters

Lebanese troops shelled al-Qaida-inspired militants in the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp on Saturday, almost three weeks after fighting broke out.

Sporadic machinegun fire reverberated and artillery shells rocked the edges of the camp in north Lebanon, where the Fatah al-Islam fighters have vowed to fight to the death.

The camp, short of food, water and electricity, has been abandoned by most of its 40,000 residents.

At least 115 people, including 47 soldiers and 38 militants, have been killed since the fighting began, making it Lebanon’s worst internal violence since the 1975-1990 civil war.

The latest mediation efforts by Lebanese Islamists to try to convince the militants to surrender have had no success.

But Lebanese sources said the Islamic Action Front, which includes Sunni politicians and clerics, and a grouping of Palestinian clerics, would continue efforts to find a solution.

The fighting began on May 20 when the militants attacked army units deployed around Nahr al-Bared after one of their hideouts in a nearby city was stormed.

Fighting amid political crisis
Lebanon is already struggling with a 7-month-old political crisis, and there are fears that fighting could spread. The past week has seen deadly clashes at another refugee camp and five bomb blasts in civilian areas in and near Beirut.

Prime Minister Fouad Siniora told the French television station TV5 on Friday that the army was holding back to preserve civilian lives.

“That’s why this battle is taking longer; and it’s worth pointing out that these terrorists are well-equipped and well-trained and persistent.”

Fatah al-Islam was officially formed late last year. Its leader, veteran Palestinian guerrilla Shaker al-Abssi, says he shares the same ideology as al Qaeda but has no organizational links with the group. Many of his men are Arab fighters from other countries, some of whom have fought in Iraq.

Authorities have charged 32 detained members of Fatah al-Islam with terrorism, charges that carry the death penalty.