NAHR AL-BARED, Lebanon (Reuters) - Al Qaeda-inspired militants killed six Lebanese soldiers on Thursday in fierce battles at a Palestinian refugee camp in north Lebanon, security sources said.
They said 22 soldiers were wounded, three seriously, in fighting at the Nahr al-Bared camp which began in the early morning after Fatah al-Islam snipers shot dead two soldiers, prompting Lebanese troops to unleash artillery barrages.
The army and Fatah al-Islam militants have been fighting at the coastal camp for nearly eight weeks. At least 212 people have been killed, making it Lebanon’s worst internal violence since the 1975-1990 civil war.
Security and political sources said on Wednesday the army, concerned about being drawn into a war of attrition, had decided to mount an all-out assault on the camp to root out the militants, who have defied demands that they surrender.
However, a military statement denied Thursday’s fighting was a final push, saying the operations “are still in the framework of tightening the noose on the gunmen to force them to surrender and submit to justice”.
Witnesses said the army was bombarding the camp, often at a rate of seven to 10 artillery shells per minute. Black smoke billowed from its battered buildings, most of which had been reduced to rubble. Lebanese navy gunboats took part in the shelling.
Bulldozers cleared the rubble and soldiers erected barricades at the camp’s edges, creating fortified army positions. Security sources said a Lebanese civilian was killed by a stray bullet a few kilometers from the camp.
Thursday’s fighting was the most ferocious since the Lebanese defense minister declared on June 21 that all major combat operations had ceased at Nahr al-Bared after the army seized all the militants’ posts on its outskirts.
A 1969 Arab agreement banned Lebanese security forces from entering Palestinian camps. The agreement was annulled by the Lebanese parliament in the mid-1980s but it effectively remained in force.
At least 93 soldiers, 75 militants and 44 civilians have been killed in fighting with Islamist militants in the camp and other areas since May 20.
The violence has further undermined stability in Lebanon, where a paralyzing eight-month-old political crisis has been compounded by bombings in and around Beirut. The country has yet to recover from a war between Israel and Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas which erupted exactly a year ago.
Lebanese judicial authorities charged three more Fatah al-Islam detainees, a Lebanese, an Algerian and a Tunisian, bringing to about 40 the number of suspected militants accused of terrorism. They could face the death penalty if found guilty.
The government says Fatah al-Islam is a tool of Syria, which Damascus and the militants deny. The group says it has no organizational ties with al Qaeda, but supports its ideology.
Some of its members — mainly Lebanese, Palestinians, Syrians and Saudis — have fought in Iraq. Security sources say at least 10 Saudis are among the dead militants.
Additional reporting by Nadim Ladki in Beirut