|Heaviest Weekend Death Toll in Massive Army Operation Against Militant Hideouts
|Lebanese troops and diehard terrorists holed up in the northern refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared refugee camp fought fierce battles over the weekend, often at close quarters, inflicting the highest casualty toll since the army launched a fresh operation to finish off the al-Qaida inspired militants.
The weekend of deadly gunbattles left 17 people killed when the army staged an operation to storm Fatah al-Islam positions inside the camp.
Sporadic firefights continued on Monday between Lebanese soldiers and Fatah al-Islam militants.
As the showdown entered its fourth week, the sound of assault rifle and machine fire interrupted long stretches of uneasy calm since late Sunday.
The daily An-Nahar said Monday that "the Nahr al-Bared battle is headed toward a big escalation," saying the Lebanese military had brought in new reinforcements, including more effective artillery and additional naval forces, while pro-Syrian Palestinian factions had joined Fatah Islam militants in their fight.
The army, which has encircled the Fatah al-Islam terrorists in a tiny enclave within Nahr al-Bared, tried to push into terrain protected by fighters manning roof-top sniper nests.
An army spokesman said 9 soldiers in total were killed in Saturday's clashes. He said 6 troops were killed on Saturday and the other three died of their injuries on Sunday, adding that 40 others were wounded.
"The soldiers were victims of booby-trapped bomb blasts and grenades thrown at them by Fatah al-Islam" as they tried to storm the militia's positions on the northeastern outskirts of the camp, said an army commander.
The soldiers were "fighting from high-rise to high-rise but encountering fierce resistance from the extremists who have booby-trapped the buildings," he said.
It was the highest casualty toll in a single day since fighting began May 20 -- the worst to engulf Lebanon since the 1975-90 civil war -- reflecting the tough challenge Lebanese troops face in efforts to crush Fatah al-Islam.
During brief lulls on Sunday, relief workers evacuated 250 people from the Nahr al-Bared camp where more than 3,000 inhabitants out of an estimated 30,000 residents are still trapped in precarious conditions. The rest have fled.
The high casualties over the weekend were suffered in clashes -- often at close quarters -- when the army staged an operation to storm Fatah al-Islam positions inside the camp.
As the army confirmed a push forward of 50 meters, Fatah al-Islam spokesman Shahine Shahine told AFP that four of its fighters had been killed and six wounded in beating back the army advance.
The weekend's bloodshed brings to 123 the number of dead since clashes erupted on May 20. They include 58 soldiers and 50 members of Fatah al-Islam.
Two Palestinian civilians, whose bodies were evacuated by the Red Crescent on Sunday, also died in the previous day's shelling of the mostly deserted camp, rescue workers said.
Lebanese authorities say the fighting was sparked by raids on Fatah al-Islam hideouts in Tripoli following a bank robbery, after which the militants attacked army posts.
The renewed flare up came as Sunni cleric intermediate Fathi Yakan, shuttling between the two sides in a bid to broker a peaceful end to the siege, declared collapse of the mediation efforts.
He said the conflict was now in the hands of al-Qaida with which he had no contact.
"The issue is now very complicated after the Nahr al-Bared dossier has been handed over (by Fatah al-Islam) to al-Qaida worldwide," Yakan said. "We have reached a dead-end."
The mediators on Friday said they had already suffered a setback when they were able to see only Shahine, not more senior Fatah al-Islam leaders.
However, another Fatah al-Islam spokesman, Abu Salim Taha, told AFP the mediation was not welcome as it required the Islamists to surrender as demanded by the Beirut government.
By longstanding convention the army does not enter Lebanon's 12 refugee camps, leaving security inside to Palestinian factions.
On Sunday, at Tripoli's main municipal stadium, thousands rallied in support of the army's battle against Fatah Islam. Pictures of fallen soldiers were put up and rival politicians and legislators from pro-government and opposition groups attended. Speakers praised the army's "heroism and sacrifices in confronting terrorism."