4 Lebanese soldiers killed as army pounds Islamists with artillery fire

181.jpgA thick blanket of smoke covered a Palestinian refugee camp Thursday as the army unleashed one of its heaviest bombardments against Al Qaeda-inspired gunmen holed up inside.But the army, which lost four soldiers in the renewed attack, according to a senior military official, denied it was conducting a final assault against the Fateh Islam fighters barricaded in Nahr Bared camp.

The four soldiers, including an officer, were killed by shrapnel or gunfire during the fierce fighting, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the media.

Thursday’s fatalities brought to 90 the number of soldiers killed since fighting began on May 20 near the northern port city of Tripoli.

An armoured personnel carrier was seen ferrying at least two wounded soldiers out of the camp, but the total injured was not known, reported the official.

A Lebanese man, identified as Adel Ajel, died later Thursday in a hospital after being hit in the head by a stray bullet on a highway near Nahr Bared, the state-run National News Agency (NNA)  reported. The intense bombardment of suspected militant hideouts with tank and artillery fire began at 4:00am (0100 GMT) Thursday and subsided around noon (0900 GMT). From five to 10 artillery shells slammed into the camp every minute, landing among Nahr Bared’s bombed-out buildings with orange bursts and plumes of white smoke. Heavy            machinegun fire could also be heard. Meanwhile, army gunboats pounded Fateh Islam positions near the coast, the NNA reported.

The operation started only hours after some 150 civilians fled on foot from the camp Wednesday as soldiers positioned around Nahr Bared moved up tanks and armoured vehicles.

The army build up came after a sniper inside Nahr Bared killed a soldier late Tuesday night and following repeated refusals by the Fateh Islam group to surrender.

In a statement Thursday denying reports that it had ordered a final assault, the army said that “the ongoing military operations are still in the context of tightening the noose on the gunmen to force them to surrender”. The violence came on the anniversary of the start of Israel’s war with Hizbollah guerrillas in southern Lebanon last summer. In an address to mark the occasion, Prime Minister Fuad Siniora late Wednesday called for “putting a final end” to the standoff at Nahr Bared.

Lebanese officials claimed victory June 21 after soldiers seized Fateh Islam positions on the camp’s edges, but the gunmen retreated deeper into the warren of narrow lanes of densely packed buildings and continued to engage in daily fire fights.

At least 60 gunmen and more than 20 civilians have been reported killed in the fighting, the country’s worst internal violence since the 1975-90 civil war. The camp housed more than 30,000 Palestinian refugees before the battles began.

Most of the camp’s residents have already fled, but a few thousand are thought to have stayed in their homes. Those fleeing Wednesday were mostly men, accompanied by some women and a few children.

Samar Kadi, an International Red Cross official, said more than 150 Palestinians fled, and witnesses said those suspected of ties with Fateh Islam were taken for questioning by the army.

Among those fleeing were fighters of the Palestinian Fateh movement and other factions who stayed in the camp to defend positions against attack by Fateh Islam. The refugees were urged by Palestinian officials in northern Lebanon to leave in anticipation of an army assault, reported the officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to speak to the media.

Meanwhile, Lebanon’s top military magistrate Rashid Mezher issued formal arrest warrants for three Fateh Islam gunmen Thursday after charging them with carrying out terrorist acts, court officials said.

The three — an Algerian, a Tunisian and a Lebanese — are already in police custody, but the warrants help justify continued detention.

Mezher formally charged the three with killing Lebanese soldiers and carrying out terrorist acts, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to speak to the media.

The exact number of Fateh Islam gunmen arrested since the group clashed with the army has not been disclosed. But Defence Minister Elias Murr said last month that about 40 gunmen, including some suspected of links with Al Qaeda, had been arrested.

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