NAHR EL-BARED, Lebanon -- Government troops stormed positions held by al-Qaida-linked militants on the outskirts of this refugee camp in northern Lebanon yesterday, in some of the fiercest fighting in two weeks.
At least 14 people, including two soldiers, were killed, according to security officials, who also said Lebanese forces moved against outlying paramilitary bases used by Fatah al-Islam militants without entering the camp itself.
"Elite forces were able to take over a number of key posts that were used by snipers from group on the northern and eastern outskirts of the camp," a senior army official said on condition of anonymity.
A 1969 agreement prevents Lebanese security forces from entering Lebanon's 12 Palestinian refugee camps.
Beginning early yesterday, tanks gathered around the camp and soldiers fired heavy artillery at the camp, sending plumes of smoke billowing from several buildings inside. At least a dozen militants were killed in the shelling and ensuing gunbattle. It was unclear whether any civilians were killed.
The fighting has claimed dozens of lives and is the worst internal conflict since Lebanon's 15-year civil war ended in 1990.
Lebanese authorities say Fatah al-Islam numbers only a few hundred fighters, many from other Arab countries who have entered Lebanon with aid from Syria.
The Western-backed anti-Syrian government has accused Syria of supporting the Islamist group in order to destabilize Lebanon. Damascus has denied any involvement.
In an official statement, the army accused the militants of infiltrating civilian areas inside the camp and using remaining residents as "human shields."
The statement called on the militants to "surrender to justice" and urged "our Palestinian brothers not to provide safe haven to these criminals."
According to U.N. agencies, about 6,000 families have left Nahr al-Bared since fighting began May 20. Yesterday, lines of cars, buses and pickups loaded with fruit and vegetables were backed up on the main roads leading toward the nearby Syrian border.
Palestinian officials said they believe thousands remain trapped inside the camp.
"The situation is disastrous. We can't leave our homes because of the heavy shelling," said Milad Salame, 26, a nurse who lives in the camp.
Salame said he decided to stay in the camp to assist the wounded and help those who remained. But he was unable to reach a medical center where he had been providing medical assistance with a doctor and another nurse in the past few days.
"When the situation briefly calmed down, we were able to bury some of the civilians killed," he said.
Salame said that many buildings were destroyed by what he described as an "indiscriminate and intense" shelling.
Taking advantage of an undeclared cease-fire earlier in the week, many refugees escaped to Bedawi, another Palestinian refugee camp nearby.
Yesterday, Oussama Hamdan, the representative of the militant Palestinian group Hamas in Lebanon, called for an end to the government offensive.
"The resumption of clashes is preventing [us] from reaching a political solution," he told reporters after a meeting between Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and Palestinian officials.
Raed Rafei writes for the Los Angeles Times.