Lebanese troops gain in push on Palestinian camp Islamists

1235.jpgNAHR BARED (AFP) — Lebanese troops bombarded Islamists inside a besieged refugee camp on Wednesday after seizing key outposts in part of the camp a month after the showdown erupted.The morning saw a lull in the fighting, but later heavy guns again bombarded suspected Fateh Islam strongholds inside the besieged Nahr Bared Palestinian camp north of Lebanon’s second city of Tripoli.

The shelling came in response to gunfire from inside the older southern part of the camp, a military spokesman told AFP.

“All the buildings in the new [northern] part of the camp where the terrorists were dug in have been taken, and one could say fighting has stopped in this area,” an army officer said earlier on condition of anonymity.

The new section is an overspill roughly the same size as the original camp, whose perimeter was fixed in 1948 by the United Nations and where all the buildings were one storey tall.

The northern overspill contained high-rise concrete buildings overlooking the road to the Syrian border, and it was to there that diehard Sunni Muslim extremists of Al Qaeda-inspired Fateh Islam withdrew to make a last stand.

After devastating the north with high explosives, the army offensive now appears to be pushing the remaining gunmen southwards.

At least 141 people, including 74 soldiers, have been killed in the deadliest internal violence since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war that comes amid increasing political and security insecurity in deeply divided Lebanon.

The Fateh Islam toll is not known.

“We are advancing metre by metre and are securing the new camp quarter by quarter because of the threat of mines,” the officer said.

The coastal northern part of Nahr Bared is now a wasteland of shattered concrete skeletons and fallen slabs.

Since the weekend, the army says it has destroyed or overrun six outposts and found “the bodies of several armed elements which had been apparently prepared for burial at the abandoned positions”.  While the government and the military seem determined to end the standoff by force, Palestinian mediators are trying to negotiate a ceasefire.

On Wednesday, they met military intelligence chief General Georges Khoury, the official ANI news agency reported.

Delegation leader Sheikh Mustapha Dawood told reporters “the army command is examining the plan proposed by the ulema”, or clerics, without elaborating.

Earlier mediators’ spokesman Mohammad Hajj said the “deployment of a Palestinian force between the two sides in the old camp is imperative if the fighting is to end”. He said the army talks were expected “to fix the details of setting up this force” that would protect about 2,000 refugees still inside the camp and prevent remaining gunmen from escaping.

It is in southern Nahr Bared, controlled by Palestinian factions hostile to the gunmen, where remaining residents are sheltering.

An AFP photographer said the Palestinian Red Crescent delivered a truckload of medicine and supplies to the southern sector on Wednesday.

Mediators said nothing had been heard for days from Fateh Islam leader Shaker Abssi, a Palestinian, or his Lebanese lieutenant, Abu Hereira.

The military is demanding their unconditional surrender and rejects face-to-face negotiations. Both the army and Prime Minister Fuad Siniora have said the fight will end when Fateh Islam is crushed.

Meanwhile, Arab League chief Amr Musa held further talks in Beirut with Lebanese leaders aimed at bridging the chasm that has frozen political life for the past seven months.

He said his mission faced “difficulties, but they are not insurmountable”, although an Arab diplomatic source told AFP on condition of anonymity there was “very little chance that Musa will broker a solution”. Lebanon has been paralysed by a deep rift between its pro- and anti-Syrian camps since the opposition, led by the powerful Shiite group Hizbollah, quit the Western-backed government last November.

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