TRIPOLI, Lebanon – The Lebanese air force on Saturday joined tanks and artillery in pounding Islamic militant hideouts on the second day of an intensifying offensive to uproot al-Qaida-inspired gunmen barricaded in a Palestinian refugee camp.
A French-made Gazelle helicopter fired two missiles and directed machine gun fire at suspected militant hideouts on the western edge of the Noah el-Bared camp near the Mediterranean coastline, in an apparent attempt to block any sea escape route.
It was the first time the army used its limited air force capability in the battle, signifying the intensity of the ground fighting. The army has helicopters, but no fixed wing aircraft.
Three more soldiers were killed and five wounded Saturday, military officials said, leaving the army with five dead and 15 wounded since the offensive began Friday when tanks and armored vehicles rolled under heavy artillery bombardment to seize positions in the camp’s outer neighborhoods. After a lull in fighting Friday evening, the army renewed its offensive Saturday morning with artillery and machine gun fire, sending plumes of smoke up over the camp.
Lebanese security officials said dozens of militants from the
Fatah Islam group had been killed or wounded in the fighting since Friday, but a senior militant commander said only two fighters had been wounded since the fighting began.
Abu Hureira, deputy leader of Fatah Islam, conceded his fighters abandoned some positions in the northern end of the Nahr el-Bared camp in a “tactical” withdrawal. But he denied the army was advancing and vowed never to surrender, as the army again demanded Saturday.
“Morale was high. Let them come. We are ready,” he said of the army, denying media reports that he and the leader, Shaker Youssef al-Absi were wounded. With the sound of firing clearly heard as he spoke, Abu Hureira said he was on the front line fighting off the army attack and al-Absi was safe in rear positions.
The army deaths raised to 37 the number of soldiers killed since fighting between the army and militants began on May 20. At least 20 civilians and about 60 militants had also been killed in the fighting before Friday’s offensive. Civilian casualties could not be determined in the latest fighting since relief organizations were not allowed inside the camp.
But Abu Jaber, an official of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, one of the major Palestinian guerrilla factions that had stayed on the sidelines, told Lebanese Broadcasting Corp. television 17 people had been wounded in the camp and some 400 houses destroyed in the army shelling.
“We hope that the army realizes that the shells are falling on the heads of the innocent people,” Jaber said by cellular phone from Nahr el-Bared. He said Palestinians were trying to “isolate” the militants who “were still fighting” by locking up houses and barricading neighborhoods to prevent the Fatah Islam fighters from retreating.
Security officials said Saturday that military units continued “mop up of pockets” of resistance on the outskirts of the camp and its perimeter. The officials said the organizational skeleton of the group had been destroyed and that some fighters had sought refuge inside the camp.
The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media, said Nahr el-Bared and its surrounding areas were divided into three zones, one under the effective control of the army, one held by the militants and a third zone controlled by civilians and Palestinian guerrilla factions refusing refuge to the militants.
Separately, an army statement Saturday said militants were taking up positions in mosques and humanitarian organizations and storing weapons there, using the remaining civilian population as “human shields” to stir up Muslims. The statement stressed the army was only targeting the militants.
The army would not speak about movements on the ground, but an army officer at the edge of the camp said Saturday that troops were continuing their operation. “We continue advancing today and hopefully we will end it. More than this we can’t say.” The officer spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
A military statement Saturday called on the militants to “drop their weapons and surrender to the army,” promising them a “fair trial.”
The current offensive, the most aggressive since the crisis began, was launched after political support grew for the army to resolve the conflict through military action. Many Palestinian refugees have also said they want the army to finish off the group.
However, the Palestinian representative to Lebanon, Abbas Zaki, said Friday the army would not storm the camp, where several thousand civilians remain trapped. Nahr el-Bared, like the other 11 Palestinian camps in Lebanon, has been off-limits to Lebanese authorities under a nearly 40-year-old agreement that allowed Palestinians to run their own affairs.
Some Lebanese security officials consider Fatah Islam a radical Sunni Muslim group with ties to al-Qaida or at least al-Qaida-style militancy and doctrine. Others say it is a front for Syrian military intelligence aimed at destabilizing Lebanon — a claim