Tripoli - Lebanese troops exchanged sporadic gunfire with Islamic militants holed up in a Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon on Monday as the war against al-Qaida-inspired fighters entered its fourth week.
The intermittent fighting came a day after heavy clashes erupted when the Lebanese army stepped up its bombardment of Fatah al Islam militants barricaded in the Nahr el-Bared camp on the outskirts of the northern city of Tripoli.
The leading An-Nahar newspaper reported Monday that "the Nahr el-Bared battle is headed toward a big escalation," saying the Lebanese military had brought in new reinforcements, including more effective artillery and additional naval forces, while pro-Syrian Palestinian factions had joined Fatah al Islam militants in their fight.
Sunday's clashes came a day after some of the heaviest fighting since June 1, when the Lebanese army — using tanks and artillery — launched a fresh offensive to drive out the Fatah al Islam militants.
Saturday's fighting killed 11 soldiers, according to a senior military official. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to give official statements, said 40 others were wounded, some seriously.
It was the highest casualty toll in a single day since fighting began May 20 — the worst internal violence to engulf Lebanon since the 1975-90 civil war — reflecting the tough challenge Lebanese troops face in efforts to crush Fatah al Islam militants barricaded inside the camp.
Meanwhile, another soldier, wounded earlier at the camp, died of his wounds Saturday, bringing to 58 the total number of soldiers killed in the fighting. More than 130 people in total, including at least 60 Fatah al Islam militants and 20 civilians, have been reported killed in the fighting. Yesterday the Lebanese army discovered about 40 corpses of militants as it advanced in its war against Fatah al Islam at the Nahr el bared Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon. The army was very careful in handling the corpses , because the terrorists were in the habit of booby trapping them in order to inflict as many casualties as possible among Lebanese soldiers, local media reported.
In a sign of continued tension outside the camp, Lebanese policemen found a hand grenade on Monday near the house of former Justice Minister Joseph Shaoul in the Christian neighborhood of Ashrafiyeh in the heart of Beirut, security officials said, speaking on customary condition of anonymity. Security forces blocked the road as a military bomb expert safely removed the grenade, which did not explode.
Fears of spreading chaos have also been sparked by clashes at another Palestinian refugee camp, Ein el-Helweh in the south, and several bombings in the Beirut area.
During the relative lull Sunday, the Lebanese Red Cross along with the Palestinian Red Crescent Society evacuated some 75 civilians, mainly women, children and elderly, from Nahr el-Bared, taking them to the nearby Beddawi refugee camp, a Lebanese Red Cross official told The Associated Press.
The aid workers also pulled out two bodies from under the rubble, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to make public statements.
On Sunday, at Tripoli's main municipal stadium, thousands rallied in support of the army's battle against Fatah al Islam. Pictures of fallen soldiers were put up and rival politicians and legislators from pro-government and opposition groups attended. Speakers praised the army's "heroism and sacrifices in confronting terrorism."
By nightfall, a grenade was hurled at an army checkpoint in Tripoli as two men on a motorcycle sped by, security officials said. No one was hurt and a patrol pursued and captured the attackers, who were wanted on previous warrants and were not believed to be linked to the militants.
Picture: Lebanese flag banner that reads " we are all for Lebanon and all support the army". Yesterday was a day of support for the Lebanese armed forces as thousands rallied in Tripoli and other cities to say thank you to the army.
Sources: AP, Ya Libnan
Feedback? We want to hear your thoughts!