BEIRUT, Lebanon – Two Lebanese soldiers were killed in overnight fighting with Al Qaeda-inspired Islamic militants barricaded in a Palestinian refugee camp in the country's north, a senior military official said Friday.
The deaths raised to 121 the number of troops killed since fighting with Fatah Islam militants entrenched in the Nahr el-Bared camp erupted May 20, the official said.
Lebanese troops pounded Fatah Islam's remaining positions inside the camp with tank and artillery fire, in the latest attempt to force the militants to surrender. Last week, the army used loudspeakers to urge the militants to give up, but they have vowed to fight to the death.
"The army will continue its military operations until all Fatah Islam members give themselves up or are killed," the official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
Fighting was raging in densely populated neighborhoods of the camp where most of the militants are thought to be barricaded, the official said.
The state-run National News Agency said artillery fire reverberated as the army advanced, capturing more buildings, positions and militant hideouts in the camp, located on the outskirts of the northern port city of Tripoli.
NNA said that in one of the captured buildings, the army uncovered a two-room fully furnished shelter with arms, ammunition, military uniforms and detonators. The report said the shelter in the camp's Saasaa neighborhood was equipped with surveillance cameras to allow its occupants to see what was going on outside.
The shelter, also apparently used as an operations room, is believed to belong to Fatah Islam leader Shaker al-Absi or his top aides, the NNA said.
The whereabouts of al-Absi and his deputy Abu Hureira, a Lebanese whose real name is Shehab al-Qaddour, have been unknown since the fighting started two months ago.
The military official said the army has seized more sophisticated weapons and equipment left behind by fleeing militants. The army is also "dismantling booby traps and cleaning bomb-rigged buildings," he said.
The militants have recently begun firing Katyusha rockets on nearby villages almost daily, an apparent new tactic to fend off the army's pressure. A Lebanese teenager was killed and a young girl was injured last week in such an attack.
Fatah Islam spokesman Abu Salim Taha has warned the group would send suicide bombers against the army if it continued its offensive.
The conflict with the militants is Lebanon's worst internal violence since the 1975-90 civil war. An undetermined number of militants — at least 60 — and more than 20 civilians have died in the fighting, according to Lebanese government and U.N. relief officials.
The exact number of Fatah Islam militants arrested since the group clashed with the army has not been disclosed. But Defense Minister Elias Murr said last month that about 40 militants, including some with suspected Al Qaeda links, had been arrested.