THE UNITED STATES has pledged continued support to Lebanonâ€™s army, which has been fighting a vicious battle against Islamists north of the country.
The pledge came during a visit by top US commander in the Middle East, Adm. William Fallon, head of the US Central Command, who met separately with Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, Defence Minister Elias Murr and army commander Gen. Michel Suleiman in brief trip to Lebanon Wednesday.
In a statement after the meetings, US Ambassador to Beirut Jeffrey Feltman praised Lebanonâ€™s efforts and reiterated â€œthe strength of the strategic partnership between the United States and Lebanon.â€ â€œLebanon, you can count on us to support the aspirations of the heroic LAF [Lebanese Armed Forces],â€ Feltman said.
The Lebanese army has been locked in fierce battles for the past three months with Fateh Al Islam gunmen holed up in the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr Al Bared in northern Lebanon.
A total of 148 soldiers have been killed in the fighting, along with an unknown number of fighters and about 20 civilians.
Feltman said the United States remains committed to providing the Lebanese army with the â€œsupplies they need to battle – and conquer – the armed extremists in the North. And the United States is delivering on our promise.â€
During a defence ministry ceremony in which the commanders inspected Humvee vehicles – part of the US military assistance – Fallon was quoted by the official news agency as â€œoffering my services and those of my command to work with you to achieve matters that you consider beneficial in building the Lebanese armed forces.â€
Washington and some of its Arab allies have airlifted supplies, mostly of ammunition, to the Lebanese army in the early days of the northern Lebanon fighting. The military in Lebanon is an all-volunteer force of 56,000, with about 220 battle tanks, no effective air power and no air defence system.
Murr, the defense minister, stressed in Wednesdayâ€™s ceremony that arming the Lebanese army was a â€œvital necessity to defend Lebanonâ€™s sovereignty and existence and complete the war against terror.â€ He said it was a â€œjoint interestâ€ for countries to help Lebanonâ€™s military to fight terrorism.
The United States has sharply increased its military assistance to Lebanon in the last year. US military assistance rose to more than $270 million in 2007, more than five times the amount Washington provided a year ago.
But opponents of the United States in Lebanon, particularly Hizbollah, have criticised the assistance.
Two Lebanese soldiers were killed Thursday in battles with Islamists at Nahr Al Bared as the army launched air strikes to rout the fighters from the last area they control.
An army spokesman told AFP that the death of the soldiers at the camp brought to 152 the number of troops killed since the standoff with Fateh Al Islam began on May 20.
Beginning at dawn Thursday the army resumed its air strikes on the camp, dropping 250- and 400-kilogramme bombs, an AFP correspondent witnessed.
Soldiers, meanwhile, proceeded with demining operations inside the bombed-out camp, focusing on subterranean shelters now under army control as well as other positions previously held by the group members.
The fighters, thought to number about 60, have been trying to negotiate all week to have some of their wounded evacuated, but the army has steadfastly refused calling for the unconditional surrender of everyone.
â€œWar is war and they canâ€™t ask us to stop the fighting to evacuate their injured,â€ a high-ranking military official who requested anonymity told AFP. â€œItâ€™s total surrender or nothing.â€
He said of the gunmen still inside the camp, some 30 to 35 are believed injured, nine of them seriously. An additional 20 men are fugitives sought for various crimes and not necessarily related to Fateh Al Islam, the official said.
He said one reason the army was having such a hard time in ending the three-month standoff was that it was poorly equipped and was dealing with a well-prepared and well-armed enemy willing to fight to the death.
â€œWe need new weapons such as guided missiles, precision weapons and helicopters that can shoot missiles,â€ he said. â€œWe also need weapons that can be fired from the coast.â€