NAHR AL-BARED, Lebanon (AFP) – Lebanese troops closed in on positions of die-hard Islamists holed up in a besieged Palestinian refugee camp on Saturday after two days of heavy fighting in which 11 soldiers were killed.
The troops traded machinegun fire with militiamen of Fatah al-Islam in Nahr al-Bared camp, which came under heavy army bombardment early Saturday, an AFP correspondent on the scene said.
A spokesman said the army has further closed in on the Islamists who were now only controlling an area 300 meters (yards) by 600 meters on a small hill inside the camp.
The Islamists fired eight Katyusha rockets which struck outside the camp, causing no casualties, said the spokesman.
“The battle is nearing the decisive phase, and the military solution will not take much longer … We should expect a sudden collapse of Fatah al-Islam,” said Sultan Abul Aynayn, head of the mainstream Fatah movement.
“The army will extend its full control over the camp, probably within the next 48 hours,” after the evacuation from Nahr al-Bared of the remaining civilians and militants of mainstream Palestinian factions earlier this week.
Abul Aynayn told a press conference that the Islamist rocket attacks on civilian-populated areas outside the camp “are the last bullet of the Fatah al-Islam gang which thought that the army would stop its offensive.”
On Friday, Fatah al-Islam militants fired 18 Katyusha-type rockets, most of which crashed into fields several kilometres (miles) to the northeast and south of the camp without causing casualties, the army said.
In addition to the 11 soldiers killed, at least another 50 were wounded in heavy clashes over the past two days, military sources said.
The latest deaths have brought to at least 184 the number of people killed since the fighting first broke out on May 20, according to an AFP toll compiled from official sources and reports. That includes 95 soldiers and at least 68 Islamists.
While artillery and tanks blasted the camp, the military said elite troops on the ground seized control of a number of buildings and Islamist positions, while army engineers cleared mines and demolished barriers.
“The army continues to close in on the armed elements … which are firing rockets blindly at neighbouring villages,” an army statement said on Thursday.
The fighting first erupted when the Islamist militants launched a string of attacks on soldiers, killing 27 of them around the Palestinian refugee camp and in the nearby northern port of Tripoli, the army says.
The Beirut government has vowed to wipe out Fatah al-Islam, a shadowy band of Islamist fighters inspired by Al-Qaeda, while Palestinian Muslim clerics have failed in mediation efforts.
Evacuation operations have been stalled since Wednesday when relief workers tried in vain to rescue the fighters’ families — about 45 children and 20 women — who failed to turn up at an agreed meeting point just inside the camp.
A “safe zone” inside Nahr al-Bared set up by Palestinian militants has been abandoned since the mainstream groups evacuated the seafront camp on Wednesday ahead of an anticipated final assault to flush out the Islamists.
About 80 remaining Fatah al-Islam fighters are being supported by dozens of pro-Syrian Palestinian militants, according to a Palestinian source, citing the activists who were evacuated.
Apart from the fighters and their families, only a small number of civilians are believed to be left in the camp, whose 31,000 residents have fled in several waves since the fighting first erupted.