TRIPOLI, Lebanon (Reuters) - Lebanese troops killed seven Islamist militants, most of them foreigners, in a raid on their hideout in the northern city of Tripoli on Sunday, while sporadic battles shook a nearby Palestinian refugee camp.
Security sources said one soldier was killed and 14 were wounded during the 10-hour siege of an apartment building. The militants killed a policeman, his two daughters, aged 4 and 8, and his father-in-law after using them as human shields.
A police statement said the policeman and his daughters were visiting the father-in-law who lived in the building when the militants stormed their flat and seized them at the start of the clashes. The militants later killed them, it said.
The army said it had found weapons, ammunition and electronic booby trap equipment in the apartment.
The dead militants, who included a Lebanese woman, were not members of Fatah al-Islam, which has been fighting an army assault on its stronghold in the Nahr al-Bared camp north of Tripoli for the past five weeks, the security sources said.
But it was information from a captured Fatah al-Islam member that led the army to the apartment where the shootout erupted.
Two floors of the five-storey building were blackened and burned in the fighting. Holes from shells, grenades and bullets punctured its facade. A pool of blood lay on the pavement.
The violence in the north has complicated a political crisis that pits Lebanon’s Western-backed government against opponents led by the pro-Syrian Shi’ite Hezbollah and Amal factions.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice praised the resilience of the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora in the face of the militants.
“It (Siniora’s government) continues forward having first repelled and I think now having made some progress against this al Qaeda uprising in the camps,” Rice told reporters on a flight to Paris ahead of talks with French officials and Siniora there.
Fatah al-Islam, a new group on Lebanon’s tangled political scene, 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.
Before Sunday’s Tripoli raid, security sources had said the group was pursuing a bizarre plan to set up an Islamic emirate in north Lebanon and invite mujahideen from round the world to join it in fighting “Jews, crusaders (Westerners) and infidels”.
Fatah al-Islam leaders deny direct links to al Qaeda, but say they sympathies with it. The militants killed in the Tripoli hideout were suspected of belonging to a group with closer ties to Osama bin Laden’s network, the security sources said.
A similar raid on a Tripoli flat on May 20 sparked the fighting in Nahr al-Bared, where 176 people have been killed in Lebanon’s worst internal violence since the 1975-90 civil war.
Witnesses said army shells crashed into the camp on Sunday as the conflict entered a sixth week. Clashes later subsided.
The militants retreated inside the camp last week after the army captured all its strongpoints nearby. Lebanon’s defense minister declared an end to major combat on Thursday, but said the army would besiege the camp until the militants surrendered.
Security forces are barred from entering Lebanon’s 12 Palestinian refugee camps by a 1969 Arab agreement.
The government says Fatah al-Islam is a tool Syria is using to destabilize Lebanon to try to regain hegemony there. Damascus denies this and says such groups threaten its own security.
Whether Fatah al-Islam has foreign sponsors or not, its fighters are well-armed, skilled and willing to die in what they see as a jihad, but have little Lebanese or Palestinian support.
Many Sunni Islamist groups have disowned them, while the army has gained stature as a national symbol in divided Lebanon.
With reporting by Nadim Ladki in Beirut and Arshad Mohammed in Paris