(Adds army statement paragraphs 8-9)
By Nazih Siddiq
QALAMOUN, Lebanon, June 28 (Reuters) - Lebanese soldiers killed six Islamist militants, most of them foreigners, during a clash on the outskirts of the northern town of Qalamoun early on Thursday, security sources said.
A military source said the gunmen appeared to be linked to al Qaeda-inspired militants of Fatah al-Islam which the army has been battling at a nearby Palestinian refugee camp since May 20.
The fighting between militants and the Lebanese army has killed at least 200 people in Lebanon’s worst internal violence since the 1975-1990 civil war.
The firefight on Thursday involved assault rifles and rocket propelled grenades as troops, backed by helicopters strafing the militants’ hideout with machinegun fire, raided the woods on the outskirts of Qalamoun.
The army later blocked off the area near Qalamoun, which is on the Mediterranean coast about 5 km (3 miles) south of the city of Tripoli, and the fighting ended a few hours later.
The military source said the group of dead militants were thought to be behind an attack on an army patrol on May 20 in northern Lebanon, one of the initial flare-ups of the fighting that ensued, mainly at the Nahr al-Bared camp.
"The group was hiding in a cave in Qalamoun. The army then clashed with it and killed the six terrorists. This cave is booby-trapped and the army is now working on either defusing the explosives or detonating them," he told Reuters.
In a statement the army said it "was able to wipe out all the elements of the group" and that the militants were found in possession of weapons and ammunition.
"The army command reaffirms its insistence on going after the terrorists without leniency and it will not leave any safe shelter for them to carry out attacks on civilians’ lives and to tamper with the state’s safety and stability," it said.
Security sources said at least two of the militants were Lebanese and three were believed to be Saudi. Two Lebanese soldiers were slightly wounded, they added. The military source said the militants’ nationalities were Syrian, Iraqi or Saudi.
A similar clash erupted last week in Tripoli after Lebanese troops stormed a militant hideout killing seven, mostly foreigners.
In Nahr al-Bared, sporadic clashes flared between the army and Fatah al-Islam on Thursday. Artillery shells pounded the camp intermittently, witnesses said.
The death toll since May 20 comprises 84 soldiers, 76 militants and 40 civilians.
Fatah al-Islam split from a pro-Syrian Palestinian faction last year with some 200 fighters. Since then it has drawn scores of Arab jihadis, including Iraq war veterans, to its Nahr al-Bared base.
The group’s leaders deny any direct links to al Qaeda, but say they sympathise with Osama bin Laden’s network. (Additional reporting by Nadim Ladki and Laila Bassam)