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Lebanese army continues assault on refugee camp

The Baltimore Sun

TRIPOLI, Lebanon -- Heavy shelling and gunfire continued for the second day at the Nahr al Bared refugee camp, as the Lebanese army intensified its offensive against the Fatah al Islam militia.

Three soldiers were killed and 15 were wounded in the fighting by yesterday afternoon, the army reported, raising the number of the army's deaths from the two-day offensive to six.

Dozens of militants from Fatah al Islam, an al-Qaida-inspired group, have also been killed or wounded, the army said. But that figure could not be independently verified, and it was not immediately clear how many of those victims were fighters and how many were among the thousands of civilians trapped in the camp.

Reports have estimated that about 8,000 of what was once 40,000 Palestinian refugees may still be in the camp.

Prime Minister Fuad Saniora said about 250 members of Fatah Islam were still inside the camp. He promised Palestinians who fled Nahr el-Bared that they will be able to return and the camp will be rebuilt.

The militants "have no choice but to surrender," Saniora told Dubai-based Al-Arabiya television, adding that the government would "assure this group justice and a fair trial."

By midday, the army had wrested control of all the positions dominated by the militants outside the camp and had destroyed many sniping positions in the camp, stopping short of actually crossing into the official boundaries of the camp, the military said.

"The army is now fighting on the exterior lines and the militants are fighting on the interior lines," said Elias Hanna, a former general in the army. "They are trying to squeeze them inside their circle."

An army helicopter attacked suspected militant hideouts with missile and machine-gun fire on the western edge of the camp, apparently in an attempt to block escape by sea, The Associated Press reported.

"This is the beginning of the end," said Mazen Faqih, a member of Lebanon's civil defense corps who has helped evacuate bodies and the injured from the camp over the last two weeks. "The army took over buildings inside the camps, and now it's just a matter of time. The militants are blocked from the sea and from the eastern, northern and southern borders. There's nowhere for them to go."

The offensive began on Friday as the Lebanese army tightened its cordon around the camp, moving several hundred yards closer to the camp, seizing new ground in a daylong fight that left 18 dead and dozens wounded.

The fighting broke a tense 10-day cease-fire, and it raised fears that the army was planning to move directly into the camp.

The militants again said they would fight to the last man, if necessary.

"Morale is high," said Abu Hureira, deputy leader of Fatah al Islam. Though he conceded that his fighters had abandoned some positions in the northern end of camp, he described the retreat as "tactical."

Residents living on the outskirts of the camp, meanwhile, said they were locking up their homes and barricading their blocks to try to keep the Fatah al Islam fighters from taking cover in their neighborhoods.

The army has insisted that it is aiming only at militants. It has been impossible to independently verify the military's movements, however, because journalists are being prevented from seeing the fighting.

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