Tue, Jul 17, 2007 - Page 6 News List

Fatah Islam draws fire in Lebanon

HIDEOUT Lebanese troops bombarded the militant stronghold as representatives wrapped up meetings in France


Two Lebanese soldiers were killed yesterday as the army continued to make advances in its eight-week-old battle to crush Islamists besieged in a refugee camp.

"Two soldiers were killed in the confrontations" around the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in northern Lebanon, a military spokesman said.

The overall reported death toll from the clashes has now reached 188, including 99 soldiers.

Soldiers exchanged machinegun fire with fighters from the al-Qaeda inspired Fatah al-Islam militia in the camp as troops also unleashed artillery fire.

"We are continuing to make advances on the ground, and we continue to tighten the noose on the gunmen," the spokesman said.

The army has reported significant progress in its battle against the gunmen since Saturday, raising Lebanese flags on buildings seized from the Islamists in the battered camp on the Mediterranean coast.

The government has vowed to eradicate Fatah al-Islam, a shadowy band which first surfaced in the camp late last year and includes extremists of various Arab nationalities.

Lebanese troops unleashed artillery shells and tank fire at Fatah Islam positions inside the camp starting around 6am yesterday, said an Associated Press Television News cameraman, standing a few hundreds meters from the war-ravaged shantytown.

The intense bombardment, which lasted nearly three hours, sent plumes of heavy black smoke billowing into the air that covered the camp, he said.

He added that the army was using armored bulldozers and other vehicles to push its way into the camp, part of its declared strategy to tighten the noose around the militants.

The APTN cameraman said he heard the din of machine gun fire in the distance, possibly indicating house-to-house fighting.

On Sunday, Lebanese infantry battled Fatah Islam militants at close range, moving deep into the Nahr el-Bared camp and hoisting Lebanon's red-and-white flag atop newly seized buildings, security officials and witnesses said.

The conflict with Fatah Islam militants holed up in the camp has been Lebanon's worst internal violence since the 1975-1990 civil war.

At least 60 militants and more than 20 civilians have been killed in the fighting, according to the Lebanese government and UN relief officials.

Sultan Abuleinein, head of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah faction in Lebanon, told reporters in the nearby Beddawi refugee camp on Saturday that "not more than 70" Fatah Islam fighters remained in Nahr el-Bared.

Earlier it was estimated that several hundred were hiding in the camp.

Outside Paris, France's foreign minister reported that talks between Lebanon's feuding political parties started tense but became more "serene" and "brotherly."

Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said the 14 parties, locked in the country's worst political crisis since the end of the civil war, pledged not to use violence for political ends, and rejected domination from forces outside Lebanon. But he was unable to offer specifics.

The informal talks Saturday and Sunday at a chateau west of Paris were organized by France with US and Iranian approval.

No breakthrough is expected, however, in the deadlock between the Western-backed prime minister and the Hezbollah-led opposition.

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