NAHR AL-BARED, Lebanon (Reuters) - Lebanese troops on Sunday seized control of a Palestinian refugee camp where they had been battling militants for more than three months, killing at least 31 fleeing fighters, security sources said.
Thirty-four more Islamist militants from the Fatah al-Islam group were captured, 23 inside the Nahr al-Bared camp in northern Lebanon. Most were wounded, a security source said.
“I am glad to convey to you the news of the national victory, the national steadfastness and the great triumph which Lebanon’s army has achieved over the terrorists,” Prime Minister Fouad Siniora said in a televised address.
The fighting has been Lebanon’s worst internal violence since the 1975-1990 civil war, killing more than 300 people. Fatah al-Islam says it shares al Qaeda’s ideology but has no organizational ties to the network.
A senior security source told Reuters the battle was over and the army had taken the group’s last positions in the camp.
“Most of the terrorists were killed today. The others have been captured. A few might have escaped but the army is hunting them down,” the source said.
The fate of Shaker al-Abssi, the group’s Palestinian leader, was unclear.
Five soldiers were killed on Sunday, raising the army death toll to 157. At least 131 militants and 42 civilians have also been killed.
The army said the militants had tried to escape from the camp in the early hours of the morning.
The fighters “attacked army positions in a desperate attempt to flee”, an army statement said.
At least three gunmen from outside the camp had also attacked an army position to help the fighters escape, security sources said.
Security forces patrolled the area, searching orchards and fields. Helicopters joined in the hunt and naval boats patrolled the Mediterranean coast. Security sources believe Fatah al-Islam set booby-traps around the camp.
Soldiers fired celebratory gunfire and locals threw rice at the troops to applaud their efforts. Soldiers sitting atop army vehicles waved Lebanese flags.
Most of the camp’s 40,000 residents fled to a nearby Palestinian refugee camp in the early days of fighting, which erupted on May 20 when the army says Fatah al-Islam attacked its positions near the camp and the northern city of Tripoli.
Fatah al-Islam split from a Syrian-backed Palestinian faction last year. The hardline Sunni Islamist group includes Lebanese, Saudi and Syrian fighters.
The militants had put up fierce resistance, managing to inflict casualties on the army despite aerial and artillery bombardment. Their wives and children were evacuated from the camp on August 24.
The army said it would not allow anyone to enter the camp and called on Palestinians not to return for the time being.
“We have to work on de-mining and rubble removal,” said Hoda Elturk, a spokeswoman for the U.N. agency which cares for the Palestinian refugee community. “We are waiting for the green light from the army to enter the camp.”
Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camps have long been beyond the control of the state, with security in the hands of Palestinian factions.
But Siniora said Nahr al-Bared would now “be under the authority of the Lebanese state and no other (authority)”. He also said the state was committed to rebuilding the camp.
Additional reporting by Tom Perry and Nadim Ladki