The Lebanese army intensified its shelling Saturday of Islamists fiercely defending their last patch of a Palestinian refugee camp as the death toll on both sides mounts.Elite troops had been deployed inside the remains of the besieged Nahr Bared camp and were “advancing, but at a very slow rate”, an army officer told AFP.
The fighters of Fateh Islam, an Al Qaeda-inspired group of Arab Islamists, responded later by firing two rockets which crashed into a nearby field causing no injuries, police said.
“The army is still conducting demining operations inside the camp and removing booby-traps,” the army officer said. “Exchanges of automatic weapons fire are occurring with the members of the Fateh Islam, which still controls a square between 200 to 300 metres on one side” of the seaside camp, he added.
So far, more than 200 people have died since the conflict at the northern camp with the Islamist fighters erupted on May 20, in the worst internal clashes in Lebanon since the 1975-1990 civil war.
More than half of the victims were members of the Lebanese military forces engaged in the standoff. The army said its last soldier had fallen on Friday, taking its overall death toll to 113.
“An army unit on Saturday retrieved the body of a militant killed during the past 36 hours found at the edges of the last square controlled by the terrorist group,” the army spokesman said later.
The Fateh Islam fighters have refused repeated calls to surrender along with their wives and children from the tiny area they are said to control inside the camp.
The military had blared messages to them with loudspeakers on Friday, urging the families of the Islamists to leave the camp, large parts of which have been reduced to rubble.
But this call has remained unanswered, said the army spokesman, asserting that Fateh Islam had “prohibited the families from leaving”, without elaborating.
Humanitarian organisations had failed in a bid on July 11 to evacuate 20 women and 45 children related to the Islamists.
The army has accused the Islamists of using their wives and children as human shields, but refugees who fled the camp said the spouses were refusing to leave their husbands behind and feared interrogation by security services.
“During our last contacts with people inside the camp a few days ago, it appeared that the women wished to stay which would make an evacuation of only the children extremely difficult,” a representative from a relief organisation who did not wish to be named told AFP.
Lebanese television also reported that the women, all veiled from head to toe, were refusing to be searched, prompting fears that some of the Islamists could use disguises to leave the camp undetected.
The television said the army was considering bringing in female police officers to search any women leaving the camp.
Almost all of the camp’s 31,000 residents have been evacuated, as well as Palestinian fighters not involved in the showdown.