NAHR AL-BARED, Lebanon (AFP) – Lebanese troops pounded a refugee camp with heavy artillery on Thursday in what could signal the start of a final assault against Al-Qaeda-inspired Islamist fighters holed up there for almost eight weeks.
Vast clouds of black smoke billowed into the sky over the Nahr al-Bared camp as shells slammed relentlessly into the ruins of the shantytown where Fatah al-Islam guerrillas have been locked in a deadly standoff with the army since May 20.
“Today’s bombardment is a first step in the final battle against the terrorist group whose fighters have refused to surrender to the army,” an army officer at the scene said.
Three soldiers were killed in battle on Thursday, the 54th day of the deadliest internal fighting in Lebanon since the 1975-1990 civil war that has further shaken security in the deeply divided country.
An officer was killed by sniper fire while two soldiers fell in an ambush by Sunni Muslim gunmen on the edge of the southern part of Nahr al-Bared, medical sources told AFP.
Their deaths brought to 177 the number of people killed, including 89 soldiers and at least 68 Islamists, since the fighting first erupted at Nahr al-Bared and the nearby Mediterranean port city of Tripoli.
Lebanese artillery was in action since daybreak, striking positions of the Fatah al-Islam militia in the south of the camp, where a few hundred people are still believed to be living although water and food are in short supply.
Shells crashed into some of the few bombed-out buildings still standing in the seafront camp, which has been left in ruins, with houses shattered and collapsed like packs of cards, vehicles burnt out and empty streets sprayed with chunks of rubble.
An AFP correspondent said elite Lebanese soldiers were also locked in gunbattles with the Islamists in the southern and eastern sectors of the camp.
The latest bombardment comes on the first anniversary of the devastating war between Israel and the Shiite militia Hezbollah which killed more than 1,200 people in Lebanon alone.
Military reinforcements were brought in overnight after more than 150 people, mostly Palestinian militants, fled the camp on Wednesday amid signs the army was readying for a final assault against the die-hard Islamists.
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Fuad Siniora called for the army to “put a final end” to the Fatah al-Islam “terrorists”, in an apparent green light to storm the camp.
“The army is continuing tighten the noose around Nahr al-Bared and clear Islamist positions with the aim of forcing them to surrender,” an army spokesman said, although he refused to speak of a final assault.
About 140 Palestinian militants, not connected to the Fatah al-Islam militiamen, were evacuated by military trucks to a Lebanese army barracks on Wednesday, a Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) source said.
Around 20 women, believed to be Palestinian refugees, were evacuated separately on a bus from Nahr al-Bared to the nearby camp of Beddawi, which has served as shelter for the bulk of displaced refugees.
But relief workers said an effort to evacuate families of the Fatah al-Islam holdouts — in all 45 children and 20 women — on board Red Crescent and Red Cross ambulances had come to nothing.
Beirut newspapers have been reporting for the past few days that the army was on the verge of storming Nahr al-Bared and making a final assault against the dozens of the Sunni Islamist fighters still holed up inside.
The evacuation was the first large-scale operation in three weeks from the camp where clashes have raged for more than seven weeks, often with the army’s gunners firing off heavy artillery.
Relief workers have been unable to deliver supplies into the camp since June 20, forcing remaining residents to scavenge for food and water in abandoned houses.
Almost all of its original population of about 31,000 people fled during lulls in the battle.
The fighting erupted when the Islamists, who are of different Arab nationalities, launched a string of attacks on soldiers, killing 27 of them around the camp and in nearby Tripoli.