Lebanon PM gives fighters warning

132.jpgLebanon’s prime minister has issued a new warning to Islamist militants holed up in a Palestinian refugee camp, after a day of intense fighting with troops. Fouad Siniora described Fatah al-Islam as a “terrorist gang” and called on its fighters in the Nahr al-Bared camp near Tripoli to surrender or be crushed.

But members of Fatah al-Islam remained defiant and vowed to take on the army.

The 13-day confrontation has so far resulted in the deaths of more than 100 civilians, soldiers and militants.

Four more Lebanese soldiers were killed and 10 wounded on Saturday, bringing the army’s casualties to six dead and 20 wounded since the latest assault began on Friday.

The violence is the worst internal fighting Lebanon has seen since the end of its civil war 17 years ago.

The UN says about 25,000 of the camp’s 31,000 residents have fled. Aid agencies have called for a ceasefire to allow more civilians to leave.

‘Fair trial’

In an interview with al-Arabiya TV, Mr Siniora said there was no option for the militants but to surrender.

“This is a terrorist gang,” he told the Dubai-based channel.

“They have to surrender themselves and their arms.”

Mr Siniora said that if the fighters gave up they would “face a fair trial”, but warned that the army would continue its “surgical operations” until then.

“The political authorities are co-ordinating with the army command in order to eradicate this group,” he added.

Earlier, an army helicopter fired two missiles at the militants, backing up machine gun and artillery fire that reportedly destroyed sniper posts.

Ground troops made further advances, with dozens of tanks and armoured vehicles moving up to the camp’s perimeter.

However, a spokesman for the militants denied they were on the retreat.

“We will not surrender and we will fight until the last drop of blood,” Abu Salim Taha told AFP news agency.

The militants are reported to have moved deeper into Nahr al-Bared, a maze of concrete buildings and narrow alleyways.

The army said some of the militants were using civilians as human shields and called on the militants to surrender.

Asserting authority

The BBC’s Kim Ghattas in Beirut says military analysts believe the Lebanese army has to finish of Fatah al-Islam to assert its authority.

The army has long been sidelined, but it has been beefed up over the last year, our correspondent says.

It has now deployed newly-acquired French-made Gazelle helicopters to back up its troops, while the US has been delivering extra military equipment.

Banners have also been put up around Beirut with slogans expressing support.

The violence began on 20 May, after security forces raided a building in Tripoli to arrest suspects in a bank robbery. Fatah al-Islam militants then attacked army posts at the entrances to the camp.

Lebanese troops hit back, bombarding the camp and storming a building on the outskirts of Tripoli.

There are 12 Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon that were set up after the creation of Israel in 1948.

Palestinian militants inside the camps carry weapons and the Lebanese army traditionally does not enter them.

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