NAHR AL-BARED, Lebanon (Reuters) - Lebanese troops advanced for the first time on Sunday into a Palestinian refugee camp as they battled al Qaeda-inspired militants, and two soldiers were killed raising the military death toll to 100.
Lebanese and army flags were seen flying over two or three devastated buildings inside Nahr al-Bared as the battle for the north Lebanon camp between the military and Fatah al-Islam fighters entered its ninth week.
The advance marked a major step for the army in the battle to crush the militants and a rare venture by troops into a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon in four decades.
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 the accord effectively stayed in place.
Security sources said at least two soldiers died in the latest fighting, bringing the military death toll to 100. A total of 221 people, including at least 80 militants, have been killed since the fighting began on May 20, making it Lebanon’s worst internal violence since the 1975-1990 civil war.
The toll includes those killed in limited clashes in other areas of the country.
Fatah al-Islam is made up of a few hundred mainly Arab fighters who admit admiration of al Qaeda but claim no organizational links. Some of the fighters have fought in or were on their way to fight in Iraq.
Soldiers exchanged automatic rifle fire and grenades with militants at building and alleyways leading to the centre of Nahr al-Bared while army artillery and tanks pounded other areas. Fatah al-Islam fighters hit back, firing a dozen Katyusha rockets at surrounding Lebanese villages.
The sources said troops pulled out alive two commandos who had been buried under the rubble of a booby-trapped building that blew up on Saturday.
The military has increased its bombardment of the besieged camp since Thursday, anxious not to get sucked into a war of attrition with the well-trained and well-armed militants.
But the militants have responded fiercely, killing 13 soldiers and wounding 53.
In south Lebanon, unknown gunmen shot dead Dharrar Rifai at Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp. Rifai was a member of the now defunct Jund al-Sham group.
Jund al-Sham was dissolved last month after clashes with the Lebanese army. Two groups dominate Ain al-Hilweh, Lebanon’s largest Palestinian refugee camp: Fatah and al Qaeda-linked Usbat al-Ansar.
The violence has further undermined stability in Lebanon, where a paralyzing 8-month political crisis has been compounded by bombings in and around Beirut, the assassination of an anti-Syrian legislator and a fatal attack on U.N. peacekeepers.
Lebanese politicians are meeting in France in an effort to find ways to resume dialogue after months of political stalemate.