The Lebanese air force yesterday joined tanks and artillery in pounding Islamic militant hideouts on the second day of an intensifying offensive to uproot al-Qaeda-inspired gunmen barricaded in a Palestinian refugee camp.
A French-made Gazelle helicopter fired two missiles and directed machine gun fire at suspected militant hideouts on the western edge of the Nahr el-Bared camp near the Mediterranean coastline in an apparent attempt to block any sea escape route.
It was the first time the army used its limited air force capability in the battle, signifying the intensity of the ground fighting.
Three more soldiers were killed and five wounded yesterday, military officials said, leaving the army with five dead and 15 wounded since the offensive began on Friday when tanks and armored vehicles rolled under heavy artillery bombardment to seize positions in the camp's outer neighborhoods. After a lull in fighting on Friday evening, the army renewed its offensive yesterday morning with artillery and machine gun fire, sending plumes of smoke up over the camp.
Lebanese officials said dozens of militants from the Fatah Islam group had been killed or wounded in the fighting since Friday, but a senior militant commander said only two fighters had been wounded since the fighting began.
Abu Hureira, deputy leader of Fatah Islam, conceded his fighters abandoned some positions in the northern end of the Nahr el-Bared camp in a "tactical" withdrawal. But he denied the army was advancing and vowed never to surrender, as the army demanded yesterday.
"Morale was high. Let them come. We are ready," he said of the army, denying media reports that he and leader Shaker Youssef al-Absi were wounded.
The army deaths raised to 37 the number of soldiers killed since fighting between the army and militants began on May 20.