|3 Lebanese Army soldiers die in battle in Nahr al-Bared
|General Suleiman predicts fighting will end within 10 days
Three Lebanese soldiers were killed in fighting with Islamic extremists at a Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon, a day after the militant's families were evacuated, the military announced Sunday.
The army said the three soldiers were killed Saturday "while carrying out their military duty" at the Nahr al-Bared camp. It did not elaborate or say how they were killed.
The deaths raise to 148 the number of soldiers who have died since fighting between the army and al-Qaeda-inspired Fatah al-Islam militants erupted three months ago.
On Friday, the families of the besieged militants who had been caught inside the camp - 25 women and 38 children - were evacuated, clearing the way for a final military assault against remaining fighters inside.
A senior military officer told the Associated Press on Saturday that all the women and their children had been released after they were questioned.
Sheikh Mohammad al-Haj of the Palestinian Scholars' Association, who had mediated the evacuation of the families, told Hizbullah's Al-Manar television that some of the women and children released had gone to Syria, including the wife and child of Fatah al-Islam leader Shaker Youssef al-Absi. Others, including the wife of Absi's deputy, Abu Hureira and two others members of Fatah al-Islam went to the Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp on the outskirts of the southern city of Sidon where they have relatives, he said.
However Sidon's mayor Abed Rahman Bizri said that families were brought to the city without the consent of its residents and municipality and demanded that they leave.
Following their evacuation, fighting between the militants and the soldiers resumed with helicopters bombing the camp on Saturday, witnesses said.
A senior military officer told the Associated Press on Saturday that the decision to finish off the gunmen still holed up inside Nahr al-Bared has been taken.
"They have no choice but to surrender or we continue our operations," he said.
"Now, in principle, the decision to finish them is taken," the officer added, without specifying when the ground assault would begin. "We were embarrassed before by the presence of civilians among them."
The daily As-Safir quoted army commander General Michel Suleiman on Saturday as saying that final military operations against the camp will take no more than 10 days.
A member of the Palestinian Clerics Association told the Agence France Press on Saturday that the Association had been contacted by the militants' spokesman, Abu Salim Taha, to negotiate the evacuation of the wounded, at least eight, he said.
"We are on the point of reaching an agreement," the cleric said. "It's a matter of finalizing the last details on time and method of evacuation."
An estimated 70 fighters remain inside the coastal camp where fighting has raged since May 20 in Lebanon's worst internal violence since the 1975-1990 Civil War.
The camp's more than 30,000 civilian residents fled in the first weeks of the fighting.
The army has refused to halt its offensive until the militants completely surrender, but the gunmen have vowed to fight on.
In a separate incident, a Palestinian gunman was shot and seriously wounded on Saturday in the Ein al-Hilweh refugee camp on the outskirts of the southern city of Sidon, Palestinian authorities and Lebanese security officials said.
Saleh Abu al-Saeed, a militant with the Jund al-Sham group, was attacked by the brother of a Palestinian man he allegedly killed a few months ago, according to the officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press. The authorities said the assailant was in custody and al-Saeed was receiving treatment in a hospital inside the camp.
The Daily Star