The Lebanese army on Thursday tightened the noose around Islamists at a refugee camp in a bid to end a near 10-week standoff that has cost the lives of 120 soldiers.Fighting intensified at the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr Bared, close to the northern city of Tripoli, and the army had been advancing â€œslowly but surelyâ€ since Wednesday, a military spokesman told AFP.
â€œWe are tightening the noose, the Islamists have no option but to surrender or face a fight to the end,â€ the spokesman, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told AFP.
The army had stepped up its shelling of positions inside the camp held by the Fateh Islam militants and was hoping to end the standoff in the coming days, although no deadline has been set, he added.
Lebanese newspapers reported that there is widespread hope that the fighting could end by August 1, to coincide with the countryâ€™s army day celebrations.
But troops were being hampered in their efforts to end the standoff by landmines and booby-traps strewn throughout the camp by Al Qaeda-inspired gunmen, the spokesman said.
â€œAs the soldiers advance, they must clear every building of mines and booby- traps and then move on to the next building,â€ he said.
The army was urging the Islamists through loudspeakers every dayÂ to surrender but has yet to receive a response, he added.
â€œWe have appealed to them to surrender and to let their families go so as not to be held responsible for the crime of holding them against their will,â€ he said.
There are an estimated 27 women and 42 children inside the camp, the spokesman said.
The army has accused the Islamists of using the 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.
Humanitarian organisations earlier this month failed in a bid to evacuate the remaining civilians.
The army spokesman said the Islamists appeared determined to fight to the end and had enough food and ammunition to last them for many days.
In a statement published in newspapers on Thursday, the army said its troops had â€œdiscovered trenches and hideouts inside the buildings where they found weapons, rocket-propelled grenades, various ammunition, detonators, explosives, monitoring equipment and ready made meals.â€
In addition to the mines and booby traps, the narrow and winding streets of the camp make it difficult for vehicles and tanks to pass, the army has said.
More than 200 people have been killed since fighting first broke out in Tripoli and at the camp on May 20, according to the army.
A spokesman said the body of a soldier was recovered Thursday from the camp, bringing the death toll among the troops to 120. He said two soldiers were also wounded.