Lebanese heavy artillery pounded a refugee camp relentlessly yesterday in what could signal the start of a massive final assault against al-Qaeda-inspired Islamist fighters holed up there for weeks.
Vast clouds of black smoke billowed into the sky over the Nahr al-Bared camp as shells slammed into the ruins of the shantytown where Fatah al-Islam militiamen 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.
As the fierce battle raged, two soldiers fell in an ambush by Sunni Muslim gunmen on the edge of the southern sector of Nahr al-Bared, a medical source said.
Their deaths brought to 176 the number of people killed, including 88 soldiers and at least 68 Islamists, since the fighting at Nahr al-Bared and the neighboring Mediterranean port city of Tripoli first broke out.
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 camp, left in ruins by the deadliest internal bloodletting in Lebanon since the 1975 to 1990 civil war.
The latest bombardment comes on the first anniversary of the devastating war between Israel and the Shiite militia Hezbollah last year 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, Lebanese 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 Organization source said.
Around 20 women, believed to be Palestinian refugees, were evacuated separately on a bus from Nahr al-Bared which has run short of fresh food and water. They later arrived in 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 five Red Crescent and Red Cross ambulances had come to nothing.
Beirut papers have been reporting for days the army was on the verge of storming Nahr al-Bared.