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Lebanese army pounds camp

NAHR AL-BARED, Lebanon (Reuters) - Lebanese troops pounded a Palestinian refugee camp in north Lebanon on Saturday where barricaded al Qaeda-inspired militants fired eight Katyusha-type rockets, a military source said.

The army and Fatah al-Islam militants have fought often ferocious battles at the coastal Nahr al-Bared refugee camp for nearly eight weeks with no sign the Islamist militants will heed calls to surrender.

The fighting has killed at least 219 people since May 20, with soldier deaths alone nearing 100, making it Lebanon’s worst internal violence since the 1975-1990 civil war.

Security sources said a Lebanese soldier died early on Saturday from wounds inflicted in Friday’s battles.

Witnesses said the army fired artillery and tank shells at Nahr al-Bared while the militants responded with sniper fire and rocket-propelled grenades from time to time.

A military source said the militants also fired eight rockets, most of which landed in nearby fields but caused no casualties. One landed in the sea and another failed to explode, the source said.

“We’re getting closer and closer to them. The militants are counting on boobytraps and mines, but the army is advancing gradually and clearing those obstacles,” the source said.

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On Friday, the militants fired 18 of the 107 mm rockets, wounding two civilians.

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 11 soldiers and wounding 48 in the last three days.

At least 98 soldiers, 76 militants and 45 civilians have been killed in fighting with Islamist militants in the camp and other areas since May 20.

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.

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.

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Lebanese politicians are meeting in France on Saturday and Sunday in an effort to find ways to resume dialogue after months of political stalemate. The country has yet to recover from last year’s war between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas.