NAHR BARED (AFP) â€” Lebanese soldiers and diehard Islamist gunmen entrenched in a refugee camp fought gunbattles on Sunday after at least 17 people were killed in an operation to storm rebel positions.As the showdown entered its fourth week, an army officer at the scene said the high casualties were suffered in clashes on Saturday that were often at close quarters and accompanied by heavy artillery fire from the military.
The army, which has encircled Nahr Bared, tried to push into the Palestinian refugee camp in north Lebanon and overrun positions held by Fateh Islam gunmen, which has snipers posted on rooftops.
Amid sporadic fighting on Sunday, the army’s spokesman said soldiers had advanced 50 metres Â inside the camp and were clearing booby traps from four buildings where the Islamists had been driven out.
“A total of 11 soldiers were killed in clashes during the army advance on Fateh Islam inside the camp,” the military spokesman said, updating an earlier toll of nine killed.
“Six were killed on Saturday, while five more died from their wounds on Sunday,” he added. Almost 40 other soldiers were wounded.
The Islamists’ spokesman Shahine Shahine told AFP that four of their fighters had been killed and six wounded in beating back the army advance.
Two Palestinian civilians, whose bodies were evacuated by the Red Crescent on Sunday, also died in the previous day’s shelling of the mostly deserted camp, rescue workers said.
The weekend’s bloodshed brings to 123 the number of dead since clashes erupted on May 20. They include 58 soldiers and 50 members of Fateh Islam.
“The soldiers were victims of booby-trapped bomb blasts and grenades thrown at them by Fateh Islam” as they tried to storm the militia’s positions on the northeastern outskirts of the camp, said an army commander.
The soldiers were “fighting from high-rise to high-rise but encountering fierce resistance from the extremists who have booby-trapped the buildings,” he said.
Lebanese authorities say the fighting was sparked by raids on Fateh Islam hideouts in Tripoli following a bank robbery, after which the gunmen attacked army posts.
The renewed flareup came as a group of Muslim clerics shuttling between the two sides in a bid to broker a peaceful end to the siege was due to meet army chief Michel Suleiman.
One Fateh Islam spokesman, Abu Salim Taha, told AFP that the mediation was not welcome as it demanded that the Islamists surrender.
One negotiator, Sheikh Fathi Yakan, said on Sunday: “It’s total impasse. The international leaders of Al Qaeda network have taken over… and the Fateh Islam members are refusing to give up.” Fateh Islam, which includes Palestinian and fighters from other Arab countries, acknowledges ideological ties to Osama Ben Laden’s network.
Lebanese troops had previously refrained from entering the camp on the Mediterranean coast where about 4,000 of its original 31,000 residents are believed still to be trapped by the fighting. The rest have fled.
By longstanding convention, the army does not enter the country’s 12 refugee camps, leaving security inside to Palestinian gunmen.
Prime Minister Fuad Siniora has hinted those arrangements might have to be reviewed. “Fateh Islam’s entry into the Nahr Bared camp shows the failure of the Palestinians’ autonomous security system,” he told France 24 television.
The unrest, which has also seen at least eight bomb or grenade attacks in and around the capital, is by far Lebanon’s deadliest internal strife since the 1975-1990 civil war.
Meanwhile, French envoy Jean-Claude Cousseran arrived in Beirut on Sunday to follow up an invitation by the French foreign ministry for leaders across Lebanon’s political divide to attend informal fence-mending talks on the country’s future later this month.
“This French initiative is both simple and concrete. It aims to help politicians in Lebanon in establishing confidence and dialogue,” Cousseran said after meeting Nabih Berri, the pro-Syrian opposition speaker of parliament.
On Monday, he will meet Siniora and leaders of the anti-Damascus majority in parliament.