Lebanon battle kills 100th soldier as blast hits UN post

A bloody eight-week-old battle between the Lebanese army and Islamists claimed the life of its 100th soldier on Monday, as a blast hit a UN post in the south of the country.A Lebanese military spokesman said three soldiers were killed in the fighting with Al Qaeda inspired Sunni extremists of Fateh  Islam around the Nahr Bared refugee camp in northern Lebanon.

 The latest deaths take to 189 the overall reported death toll since the clashes began between the Lebanese army and Fateh Islam militants.

The fighting erupted on May 20 when the Islamist  launched a string of attacks on soldiers, killing 27 of them around the Palestinian refugee camp and in the nearby northern port city of Tripoli, the army says.

 In the latest clashes on Monday, troops also unleashed artillery as soldiers exchanged machinegun fire with the fighters of  Al Qaeda-inspired group holed up in the camp, an AFP correspondent said.

The Islamists, who are now believed to number a few dozen, responded by firing rockets, five of which crashed into fields north of the camp without causing any casualties, according to police.

The army has reported significant progress in its battle against the gunmen in the past few days, raising Lebanese flags on buildings seized from the Islamists in the battered camp on the Mediterranean coast.

“We are continuing to make advances on the ground, and we continue to tighten the noose on the gunmen,” said the army spokesman.

 The fighters now controlled an area only 300 metres by 600 metres on a small hill inside the camp, left in ruins by the bloodiest internal clashes since the 1975-1990 civil war.

The government has vowed to eradicate Fateh  Islam, a shadowy band which first surfaced in the camp late last year and which includes extremists of various Arab nationalities.

 Meanwhile, a UN peacekeeping vehicle was slightly damaged by a small roadside bomb at a bridge in southern Lebanon, the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) and the Lebanese military said.

“We can confirm an explosion in the area of Qasmiyeh bridge which slightly damaged a UNIFIL vehicle of the Tanzanian battalion,” spokeswoman Yasmeena Bouziane told AFP.

 The blast came less than a month after a car bombing killed three Spanish and three Columbian UNIFIL soldiers.

A UNIFIL statement said the vehicle was hit by a small charge of explosives that had been planted a few metres away on the roadside.

 “The explosion caused limited damage to the vehicle but no injuries to the occupants,” it said, adding an investigation had been launched.

UNIFIL has a position on the bridge across the Litani river, the northernmost line of deployment of the multinational force which was beefed up after last year’s war between Israel and the Lebanese Shiite group Hizbollah.

 June’s car bombing against the Spanish contingent was the first fatal attack on UN peacekeepers since UNIFIL’s mandate was expanded.

That bombing, blamed on Sunni extremists rather than Hizbollah, was aimed primarily at damaging the stability of Lebanon, UNIFIL commander Major General Claudio Graziano said at the time.

 Both Hizbollah and its Shiite allies Amal condemned the attack.

“We express our disapproval and condemnation of the attack that targeted UNIFIL in the south, the objective of which is to create instability in the region,” they said in a joint statement.

 Al Qaeda second-in-command Ayman Zawahiri, in an audio message posted on the Internet last week, praised the June 24 attack as “a response against those invading Crusader forces who were occupying a beloved part of the land of Islam.” UNIFIL has about 13,500 troops and 1,000 civilian employees, compared to only 2,000 before the July 12, 2006 outbreak of the devastating war in Lebanon.

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