NAHR AL-BARED, Lebanon (Reuters) - Five Lebanese soldiers were killed on Saturday in the latest bout of heavy fighting against al Qaeda-inspired militants entrenched in a Palestinian refugee camp, a military source said.
At least 125 people, including 53 soldiers and 42 militants, have been killed since the fighting began on May 20 — almost three weeks ago — making it Lebanon’s worst internal violence since the 1975-1990 civil war.
Security sources said several soldiers were wounded in Saturday’s fighting in which machinegun fire reverberated and heavy artillery shelling rocked the north Lebanon camp from early morning.
The military source said another soldier had died from wounds sustained earlier.
In the eastern Bekaa Valley, Lebanese security forces arrested three suspected al Qaeda members, including a Belgian, security sources said.
One suspect, a Lebanese man, was arrested in the village of Bar Elias where earlier this week, security forces dismantled what they say is as an al Qaeda cell preparing for car bomb attacks in Lebanon and seized weapons and explosives.
At least nine people have now been arrested in connection with the cell, the sources said.
A Palestinian source inside the Nahr al-Bared camp said at least four Fatah al-Islam militants died in the intensive assaults in which heavy black smoke billowed from many of the squalid camp’s bombed-out buildings, some riddled by bullets and punctured by shells.
“The army is trying to control positions that the militants are using to target the army,” a military source said.
Only a few thousand of the 40,000 residents remain in the coastal camp which is short of food, water and electricity.
“I saw at least 17 civilian homes destroyed. An oil refinery warehouse and at least five cars were burning,” said Mahmoud Abu Jihad, a resident in the camp.
Another camp resident, Milad Badran, said: “The army’s bombardment is haphazard and is hitting civilian areas. It is impossible to describe the humanitarian situation.”
The latest mediation efforts by Lebanese Islamists to try to convince the militants to surrender have so far had no success.
But Lebanese sources said the Islamic Action Front, which includes Sunni politicians and clerics, and a grouping of Palestinian clerics, would continue efforts to find a solution.
“We are trying in every way to convince them, even using Islamic intellectual arguments and sharia (Islamic law) that this is not the right way,” the Front’s leader Fathi Yakan told Reuters.
Yakan said a proposed first step was the surrender of the group’s Lebanese members.
The militants, many of whom are foreign fighters from other Arab countries, have vowed to fight to the death and are refusing to surrender or give up their weapons.
“The army is attacking from afar and they don’t come close. We will keep fighting until this oppression is lifted, We will fight until the end, even for months, it’s not a problem,” Abu Hurayra, a Fatah al-Islam commander, told Reuters from the camp.
The fighting began on May 20 when the militants attacked army units deployed around Nahr al-Bared after one of their hideouts in a nearby city was stormed.
Lebanon is already struggling with a 7-month-old political crisis, and there are fears that fighting could spread.
Deadly clashes have erupted at Lebanon’s largest Palestinian refugee camp in the past week, and five bombs have rocked civilian areas in and near Beirut since May 20.
Fatah al-Islam was officially formed late last year. Its leader, veteran Palestinian guerrilla Shaker al-Abssi, says he shares the same ideology as al Qaeda but has no organizational links with Osama bin Laden’s network.
Authorities have charged 32 detained members of Fatah al-Islam with terrorism, charges that carry the death penalty.
Additional reporting by Yara Bayoumy in Beirut