BEIRUT, Lebanon – Lebanese troops killed at least five Islamic militants during a gunbattle in northern Lebanon on Thursday, a military official said.
Other militants took refuge in nearby forests, pursued by troops backed by helicopters, the official said. He declined to be named because he was not authorized the address the media.
The clash occurred near the village of Qalamoun, a few miles south of the northern port city of Tripoli.
Hospital officials in Qalamoun said six militants were killed, including three Saudis and two Lebanese. Military officials in Beirut spoke only of five deaths.
The slain militants were members of the al-Qaida-inspired Fatah Islam group, which has been fighting the Lebanese army in a Palestinian refugee camp near Tripoli since May 20, a security official said on customary condition of anonymity.
The clashes in Qalamoun were the first there since Fatah Islam militants ambushed the army in the camp in Nahr el-Bared and in Qalamoun five weeks ago.
The fighting has been Lebanon’s worst internal violence since the 1975-90 civil war, and is believed to have claimed the lives of more than 160, including 84 soldiers, at least 60 militants and more than 20 civilians.
Fatah Islam leaders have threatened to take their fight outside the camp if the government pursues its military offensive.
Last Sunday, Lebanese troops raided an apartment complex in Tripoli suspected of housing Islamic militants, setting off a gunbattle that left 10 people dead, including six alleged militants.
Lebanese Defense Minister Elias Murr declared victory over Fatah Islam, but heavy machine-gunfire bursts of artillery shells have continued across the camp. Several thousand civilians are believed to be trapped inside the camp.
The Lebanese army on Wednesday accused Fatah Islam militants still barricaded in the Nahr el-Bared camp of hiding among Palestinian civilians trapped in the settlement and confiscating humanitarian aid sent to them.
In a statement, the army urged Palestinians inside the camp to persuade the militants to turn themselves in.
Murr said Tuesday that some 300 Islamic militants have been killed or wounded in the fighting, leaving only a few dozen fighters hiding in the besieged camp.
The international Red Cross said Wednesday that the fighting close to the camp’s southern entrance has hampered humanitarian operations in the last week.