2 Lebanese soldiers killed as army closes in on refugee camp Islamists

193.jpgLebanon’s army resumed its bombardment of Al Qaeda-inspired gunmen entrenched in a Palestinian refugee camp on Saturday, pounding them with artillery and tank fire, a senior military official said.In response, Fateh Islam gunmen fired at least three Katyusha rockets on a coastal town about five kilometres from the camp, causing no casualties, the state-run National News Agency (NNA) reported.

Later Saturday, Fateh Islam gunmen fired three more Katyusha rockets that landed in farm fields some 10 kilometres from the camp, causing damage but no casualties, the NNA said.

The gunmen also unleashed a volley of rocket-propelled grenades and machine gunfire at army positions around the besieged camp.

One Lebanese soldier was killed in Saturday’s clashes and another died of fatal wounds he received Friday, the official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the media.

Saturday’s deaths raised to 96 the number of soldiers killed since fighting between the army and Fateh Islam gunmen erupted    May 20 in the Nahr Bared camp, located on the outskirts of the northern port city of Tripoli.

Later in the afternoon, troops killed a number of Fateh Islam gunmen by blasting their hideouts with sustained artillery fire, the NNA reported.

“Fateh Islam suffered heavy losses,” it said. “Their [dead] bodies were seen in the [camp’s] streets and under the rubble following the fierce and concerted bombardment of their positions.” The NNA said Saturday that the army was making “important progress” in the ongoing fighting, capturing a number of buildings that the gunmen used as a base to fire at troops.

“The Lebanese army continues its military operations in the Nahr Bared camp and its surroundings as part of tightening the noose on the Fateh Islam gang until it is eliminated,” the NNA said.

The army said Friday it had seized control of a number of buildings that had been used by Fateh Islam gunmen to attack and snipe at soldiers and was cleaning the buildings of mines and booby traps while “continuing to tighten the noose” on remaining gunmen inside.

In an apparent attempt to ease the military pressure and expand the battles outside the camp, Fateh Islam gunmen on Friday fired 19 Katyusha rockets that crashed into villages neighbouring the camp, slightly injuring two people and causing damage to property and orange and grape groves.

A senior Palestinian official told reporters in the nearby Beddawi refugee camp Saturday that “not more than 70” Fateh Islam fighters remained in Nahr Bared. Sultan Abuleinein, head of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fateh faction in Lebanon, has called for the gunmen to be eliminated since the fighting began.

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

The army lost six soldiers on Thursday in one of the heaviest bombardments against the gunmen. But the army has denied it is conducting a final assault against Fateh Islam gunmen, who have vowed to fight to the death rather than surrender.

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.

The continued fighting in Nahr Bared Lebanon comes as the country is also facing a severe political crisis.

The Western-backed government of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora is locked in a fierce power struggle with the Hizbollah-led, pro-Syrian opposition. One of the opposition’s key demands is the creation of a new national unity government in which it has veto power.

Siniora, backed by the anti-Syrian majority in parliament and the United States, has rejected the opposition’s demand.

Lebanon’s rival parties are holding long-awaited talks in France on Saturday to find a way to break the political impasse that is threatening to tear the country apart.

Members of the country’s 14 leading parties — including Hizbollah and its allies — will gather in the chateau at Celle Saint-Cloud, southwest of Paris, on Saturday and Sunday behind closed doors, with no set agenda.

Hopes are not high for a breakthrough at the meeting, organised by the French Foreign Ministry.

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