Lebanese army pounds besieged Islamists

NAHR BARED (AFP) — Lebanese troops pounded Islamists holed up in a refugee camp throughout Sunday as the deadly standoff entered its third week with both sides vowing to fight to the end.

Clashes also erupted at a second Palestinian refugee camp in the south of the country which left three soldiers and two civilians wounded, medics said, raising fears the unrest could spread further.

In northern Lebanon, smoke billowed into the sky throughout the day as the intermittent thud of shells and the rattle of                   machinegun fire reverberated around the Nahr Bared camp on the shores of the Mediterranean.

Backed by tanks and helicopters, the military has tightened its siege around the squalid camp where Fateh Islam gunmen are still holding out in the face of superior firepower.

“We are inflicting great damage on the part of the Lebanese army,” Fateh Islam spokesman Abu Salim Taha told Jazeera television.

“We are… in total control of the battlefield…. We have the upper hand in fighting at the moment. We will never surrender… we will fight till the last drop of blood.” Fighting also erupted in the Ein Helweh camp in southern Lebanon, after a member from another Islamist group Jund Sham (Soldiers of Damascus) threw a handgrenade at an army checkpoint.

Three soldiers and two Palestinian civilians were wounded at the camp, the largest of the 12 in Lebanon that house about half of the country’s estimated 400,000 Palestinian refugees.

Prime Minister Fuad Siniora on Saturday warned Fateh Islam to surrender or be wiped out after two days of the fiercest gunbattles since the fighting erupted in northern Lebanon on May 20.

The standoff has continued despite efforts by a group of Palestinian clerics to mediate a negotiated solution. On Sunday, army big guns fired a volley of around 20 shells at the east of the camp, setting fire to several buildings, AFP correspondents reported.

One officer told AFP that fighters had been firing on the motorway leading north from the nearby city of Tripoli, effectively cutting it off. “Our artillery has destroyed terrorist positions on the rooftops which we then raked with heavy        machinegun fire, allowing us to reopen the main road from Tripoli to the Syrian border,” he said.

Four Islamist gunmen were killed on Sunday, Lebanon’s official news agency reported, including the group’s deputy leader named as Shehab Kaddur.

However, a man who Jazeera said was Kaddur denied he had been killed and boasted that his fighters “have arms that would shock the enemy.” Another two soldiers were killed in battles overnight, bringing to nine the number killed in the recent bout of fighting and the overall death toll to around 100, including 44 soldiers.

It is the bloodiest internal fighting since the 1975-1990 civil war and has added to tensions in a country already battling an acute political crisis.

“This is a terrorist gang,” Siniora told Arabiya television on Saturday. “They have to surrender themselves and their arms.” He said the army was carrying out “surgical operations” to eradicate the gunmen, but that if the Islamists give up “they will face a fair trial.” It is not known whether the army is planning a ground assault on the camp. By longstanding convention, it does not enter Lebanon’s 12 Palestinian refugee camps, leaving security inside to armed groups.

Fateh Islam, a tiny band of well-armed Sunni Muslim extremists which first surfaced only last year, is believed to have about 250 fighters, according to Siniora.

Tanks could be seen on streets outside the camp, along with armoured personnel carriers loaded with soldiers and red-bereted members of the special forces.

Siniora said the camp’s population had fallen from more than 31,000 to fewer than 3,000, with thousands taking flight from the fighting and an increasingly desperate humanitarian situation.

Lebanon’s An Nahar newspaper reported that arrested members of Fateh Islam had confessed the group was planning a September 11-style attack.

“Fateh Islam planned to attack a large hotel in the capital using four suicide truck bombs at the same time as launching suicide attacks on embassies in east and west Beirut,” the paper said, without giving its sources.

An Nahar also said the group, which has been blamed for at least one bombing in Lebanon, planned attacks with the aim of cutting off the north of the country and proclaiming an Islamic state there.

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