Lebanon adds airpower to fight against militants

The Lebanese army, which has been clashing with Fatah Islam militant groups since May 20, apparently used a helicopter Saturday to block an escape route. Heavy shelling in the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr el-Bared has destroyed about 400 houses, an official with a guerrilla faction said.

Helicopter joins Lebanese offensive against gunmen inside Palestinian refugee camp.
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By Zeina Karam

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Sunday, June 03, 2007

TRIPOLI, Lebanon ā€” A missile-firing helicopter joined the Lebanese army offensive against Sunni Muslim militants Saturday, the second day of a push against the Fatah Islam fighters inside a Palestinian refugee camp.

Army tanks shelled militant hideouts in the Nahr el-Bared camp, near Tripoli, blasting upper floors of buildings where the militants placed snipers.

A Lebanese air force helicopter fired two missiles and strafed militant positions in the first use of airpower since fighting began with the Fatah Islam group on May 20. The air attack was an apparent attempt to block an escape route to the Mediterranean Sea.

At least four Lebanese soldiers were killed and 10 wounded Saturday in the offensive aimed at uprooting al Qaeda-inspired militants vowing a fight to the death in the camp.

The casualties raised the army’s deaths to 38 in two weeks. At least 20 civilians and about 60 militants were killed by Friday, but total casualties in the camp in the past two days were unknown because relief organizations were banned from entering.

Most of the camp’s 31,000 residents fled to the nearby Beddawi refugee camp earlier in the fighting, but at least 5,000 are thought to still be inside Nahr el-Bared.
Lebanese officials claim dozens of Fatah Islam militants have been killed or wounded since Friday.

The group’s deputy commander, Abu Hureira, said only two fighters were wounded in the past two days. He conceded that his fighters abandoned some positions on the camp’s northern edge in a “tactical” withdrawal, but denied the army had advanced.

“Let them come. We are ready,” Abu Hureira said by cell phone, gunfire crackling in the background as he spoke.
Prime Minister Fuad Saniora said about 250 members of Fatah Islam were still inside the camp.
He promised Palestinians who fled Nahr el-Bared that they will be able to return and the camp will be rebuilt.

The militants “have no choice but to surrender,” Saniora told Dubai-based Al-Arabiya television, adding that the government would “assure this group justice and a fair trial.”

There were signs that some Palestinians trapped inside the camp were trying to squeeze the militants out.

Abu Jaber, an official of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine ā€” a key Palestinian guerrilla faction that has stayed out of the fighting ā€” told Lebanese Broadcasting Corp. television that Palestinians were trying to isolate the militants by locking up houses and barricading camp neighborhoods to keep them out.

Jaber said 17 people had been wounded in the camp and about 400 houses destroyed Saturday.
“We hope that the army realizes that the shells are falling on the heads of innocent people,” Jaber said by cell phone from Nahr el-Bared.
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