BEIRUT (AFP) â€” Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora repeated a warning on Saturday to Islamist gunmen holed up in a northern refugee camp that they must surrender or be crushed, as intense fighting continued to rage.
“This is a terrorist gang,” Siniora said of Fateh Islam in an interview with Arabiya television. “They have to surrender themselves and their arms.” He said that if the Islamists give up “they will face a fair trial”, but added that the army was carrying out missions against the Nahr Bared camp “like surgical operations in order to eradicate this phenomenon”. Earlier, a spokesman for the gunmen had vowed that they would fight to the last man.
Siniora said the camp’s population had fallen from more than 31,000 to fewer than 3,000, including the gunmen, after civilians fled following the outbreak of fighting on May 20.
He accused Fateh 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.
Earlier, an army spokesman said “the battles will continue until we put an end to the phenomenon” of Fateh Islam. “The only choice for the gunmen is to give themselves up.” The army said it wanted a “quick end” to the crisis and called on the gunmen to “return to reason”. But Fateh Islam spokesman Abu Salim Taha vowed: “We will not surrender and we will fight until the last drop of blood.
“The Nahr Bared camp will not fall despite the destructive shelling, and the army will not be able to enter,” Taha told AFP.
Troops on Saturday, the 14th day of the battle, were pounding Nahr Bared with 155mm artillery fire, an AFP correspondent said.
Batteries of big guns on high ground targeted the northwest of Nahr Bared, where most of the gunmen were believed to be entrenched.
Two helicopters also used heavy machineguns to attack gunmen, the first time choppers have been used in the battle.
An AFP photographer said the helicopters made about a dozen passes above positions manned by Fateh Islam, who replied with anti-tank rockets without hitting either aircraft.
Sheikh Mohammed 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 Haniyeh said the “tangible progress” made by the army in clearing the camp’s northern and eastern edges of gunmen might help mediation efforts.
“This is a victory that could open the way for a political settlement,” spokesman Ali Baraka said.
An army spokesman said “our soldiers have cleaned up pockets of resistance around the north and east sides of the camp, and sappers have made safe buildings booby-trapped by Fateh Islam on the edges of the camp before they can be dislodged.” The military said it had lost four soldiers on Saturday. That took the death toll since the fighting erupted on May 20 to 95 â€” 42 of them soldiers and 41 gunmen â€” in the deadliest internal conflict since the 1975-1990 civil war.
A mainstream Palestinian commander inside the camp said at least eight gunmen had been killed on Friday, but that there were no casualties among civilians, as they were sheltering in areas under his control.
“Southern districts have been completely spared bombardment by the Lebanese army â€” that’s why there have been no victims among civilians,” said Abu Imad Halwani, regional commander of the Fateh movement of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Halwani said his men were building a sand berm across the centre of the camp to “prevent the Fateh 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 Bared.
By longstanding convention, the army does not enter Lebanon’s 12 Palestinian refugee camps, leaving security inside to armed groups.
The International Committee of the Red Cross called on all parties not to target civilians.Â