Lebanon army pounds militants in refugee camp
NAHR AL-BARED, Lebanon, June 2 (Reuters) Lebanese troops pounded suspected positions of al Qaeda-inspired militants at a Palestinian refugee camp today, a day after seizing key points on its edges.
Inside the Nahr al-Bared camp, a spokesman for the militants said they would neither surrender nor give up their weapons.
''There is no way we will give up our weapons because it is our pride. We cannot even contemplate surrendering,'' Abu Salim Taha, Fatah al-Islam's spokesman, told Reuters by telephone. He denied the loss of key positions.
Against the constant thud of explosions and crackle of machinegun fire, plumes of dark smoke billowed from the camp's cramped buildings as soldiers fired barrages of artillery shells and mortar bombs.
Lebanese navy boats patrolled the camp's coast on the Mediterranean, at times coming under fire from militants.
The army has been battling the Fatah al-Islam militants since May 20 in Lebanon's worst internal violence since the 1975-1990 civil war. The Lebanese government says Fatah al-Islam triggered the fighting when it attacked army positions around the camp and Lebanon's second largest city, Tripoli.
Yesterday, elite troops seized three key Fatah al-Islam positions and destroyed sniper nests on the camp's northern and eastern edges.
Most of the militants are foreign Arab fighters.
A military source said the army also destroyed several structures overlooking its positions on the camp's edge. ''There are still some pockets inside the camp that are attacking the army,'' an army source said.
Two soldiers died overnight when their armoured vehicle was hit by a rocket propelled grenade, bringing the total death toll in the conflict to 105, of whom 40 are soldiers.
At least 16 people were killed inside the camp yesterday, but it was unclear whether they were militants or civilians.
DESPERATE HUMANITARIAN CONDITIONS Nahr al-Bared was set up in 1948 as a temporary tent camp to house Palestinian refugees displaced by fighting in the 1948 war that accompanied the creation of Israel. Since then, the camp's population has ballooned.
A 1969 Arab agreement prevents the army from entering Lebanon's 12 Palestinian camps, home to 400,000 refugees, and troops have confined fighting to its outskirts.
Up to 5,000 of Nahr al-Bared's 40,000 refugees fled the camp in the past two weeks due to increasingly desperate conditions with little or no access to food, water or electricity. Hundreds of people have also been wounded.
The militants have repeatedly rejected calls by the Lebanese government to surrender. They say they are acting in self-defence.
Lebanese authorities have charged 20 captured members of the group with terrorism. The charges carry the death penalty.
The Lebanese government had given Palestinian leaders in Lebanon a chance to find a way out of the stand-off because it fears the fighting could spark violence in other refugee camps.
Members of Lebanon's anti-Syrian cabinet have described Fatah al-Islam as a tool of Syrian intelligence, but Damascus denies any links to the group and says its leader, Shaker al-Abssi, is on Syria's wanted list.
Abssi has said he follows al Qaeda's ideology, but has no direct links to Osama bin Laden's network. Many of his estimated 300 gunmen have fought in Iraq, Palestinian sources say.
REUTERS SG ND1432