Date registered: Sep 2004
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Lebanon army tightens noose around beseiged militants
NAHR AL-BARED, Lebanon (AFP)
Lebanese ground troops, backed by artillery, tightened the noose Friday around Islamist militants holed up inside a Palestinian refugee camp, where the humanitarian situation was described as desperate.
Thick smoke could be seen rising from targets struck by army tank fire and mortars inside the northern Nahr al-Bared refugee camp, where a security source said "an important position of the extremist group has been destroyed."
Troops were moving toward the camp's northwestern entrance "where most Fatah al-Islam fighters are entrenched," the source said, amid efforts to eliminate snipers, who have targeted both the army and civilians fleeing since clashes first broke out on May 20.
A military source said a commando of around 1,000 men was involved in the operation, without elaborating.
"The army is attempting to prevent the gunmen from using high points for sniper fire. We are now controlling high points just outside the camp," said a military spokesman, who did not wish to be identified.
"The army did not enter the camp, but has controlled tall buildings inside the camp from a distance," said the spokesman, adding that the army had not suffered any casualties.
Eighty people, including 35 soldiers, have been confirmed killed since the fighting first broke out on May 20.
AFP correspondents reported around 20 army vehicles, including tanks, taking up new positions on the road leading to the camp from the south, while another 10 armoured vehicles were deployed to the scene of fighting to the north.
Four Lebanese navy patrol boats could also be seen off the coast outside the camp.
An army spokesman earlier said the fighting flared again when militants of the Al-Qaeda-inspired Fatah al-Islam group opened fire at around 7:00 am (0400 GMT) on army positions outside the camp.
He said they also fired on the main road linking it to the nearby city of Tripoli, Lebanon's second largest, making the route all but impassable.
"The army responded with precision fire from tanks and mortars in a legitimate act of defence and in an attempt to spare civilians" inside the camp, he said.
The government, pushing for a peaceful end to the standoff, has insisted that Fatah al-Islam hand over fighters to stand trial for attacking its armed forces during the bloodiest internal fighting since the 1975-1990 civil war.
But the group is adamant that none of its fighters will be surrendered.
Sheikh Mohammed al-Hajj, a member of a delegation of clerics attempting to mediate a solution, said on Thursday that "the situation is still complicated and requires more discussions in order to close the gap between the points of views of the two sides."
After a meeting in Beirut on Friday morning with Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, the representative in Lebanon of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) said he had been told "concrete measures will be taken to put an end to the hostage-taking of the camp."
Abbas Zikki added that he had pleaded for the army to "do everything in its power to spare the civilians."
Separately, he was quoted by Al-Jazeera television as describing the situation in Nahr al-Bared as "desperate," and that "corpses are rotting in the streets."
The International Committee for the Red Cross called on all parties to "spare civilians" inside the camp, where the United Nations Relief and Works Agency said around 5,000 of the camp's original 31,000 residents remained.
The rest have fled, often under fire from Fatah al-Islam snipers, and relief agencies have been struggling to deliver aid both to those who were able to leave and to those still trapped inside.