TRIPOLI, Lebanon – Advancing under a blanket of artillery and tank fire, Lebanese troops overran positions held by al-Qaida-inspired militants at a Palestinian refugee camp on Friday, reportedly killing 18 people.
Artillery and machinegun fire shook Nahr el-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 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-Qaida urged militants in Lebanon to defend Fatah Islam.
A military statement said some militants had fled the frontline and sought refuge deep in the camp, â€œtaking civilians as human shields.â€ It called on the militants to surrender.
The army has been battling militants in the camp â€” many of them foreign fighters â€” since May 20 in Lebanonâ€™s worst internal violence since the 1975-1990 civil war.
At least 84 people â€” 35 soldiers, 29 militants and 20 civilians â€” had been killed before Friday.
Dozens wounded 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 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.
Lebanese Broadcasting Corp. said troops were attempting to seize the main offices of Fatah Islam in the campâ€™s northeastern area.
A resident said some Fatah Islam positions were overtaken and destroyed in the push. He spoke from inside the camp on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
â€œWhat we have decided is to deal with Fatah Islam as a group, a terrorist group taking hostages who are left in the camp,â€ said Telecommunications Minister Marwan Hamadeh. He told Associated Press Television News in Beirut that the army may be seeking to isolate the militants.
â€œI think the army is determined this time to go ahead and probably to reduce several pockets of Fatah Islam terrorist,â€ he said.
Cabinet Minister Ahmed Fatfat told Al-Arabiya television that the army came under sniper fire earlier Friday and decided to respond. â€œIt seems they have destroyed those positions.â€
Building by building fighting
A soldier on standby in a unit of 10 armored carriers and two tanks on the campâ€™s edge said troops were advancing slowly and fighting building to building, after bombing positions in the morning.
â€œThey are in very well-fortified positions,â€ he said of the militants, saying troops were coming under sniper fire. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak with the media.
Television footage showed the movement of T-55 Russian-made tanks, French-made Panhard tanks, M-113 U.S.-built armored personnel carriers and jeeps with 106mm rifles mounted on them. Sandbags were packed on some of the vehicles.
Military officials would not comment on the troop movements and journalists were pushed back further from the camp. But a statement by the army command said troops came under fire from the militants and the army was â€œresponding with accurate and decisive fire to deter them.â€ The statement said the army was at the same time avoiding civilian casualties.
The concentrated bombardment began in the morning, with heavy barrages targeting all parts of the camp.
Sporadic gunfire exchanges have continued daily since a truce halted three days of heavy fighting.
A Lebanese soldier was killed by Islamic militantsâ€™ sniper fire on Thursday.
Thousands of Palestinians have fled the camp, but thousands more are still inside, along with the Fatah Islam fighters.