Lebanese Troops Hit Islamic Militants With Tank, Artillery Fire

The army unleashed tank and artillery fire Monday on the remaining hideouts of Al Qaeda-inspired militants holed up in a Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon, continuing fighting that killed a soldier overnight, a senior military official reported.

The death late Sunday raised to 122 the number of troops killed since fighting with Fatah Islam militants entrenched in the Nahr el-Bared camp erupted May 20, the official said.

"The fighting continues in the last stronghold of the (Fatah Islam) gunmen," the official told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

"The army is working to finish off this (Fatah Islam) phenomenon while taking into account the conditions of the gunmen's families and other civilians whom the gunmen have not allowed to leave the camp," he added.

The army has repeatedly said it has delayed its long-awaited final assault to crush the militants out of concern for the safety of the civilians still in the camp.

Sporadic fighting erupted Monday inside the war-devastated camp located on the outskirts of the northern port city of Tripoli, as the army blasted Fatah Islam's remaining positions, witnesses said.

In response to the army's heavy shelling Sunday, the militants fired seven Katyusha rockets overnight that landed in farm fields in the northern Akkar region, a few kilometers away, causing damage but no casualties, according to witnesses.

The militants have recently been firing Katyusha rockets on nearby villages almost daily, apparently to counter the army's pressure. A Lebanese teenager was killed and a young girl was injured in such an attack earlier this month.

Using loudspeakers, the army renewed its calls Monday for the militants to surrender or allow their families to leave the camp, the state-run National News Agency reported. But the appeal was ignored by the gunmen, it said.

Also Monday, Army Commander Gen. Suleiman vowed to continue the battle against the Fatah Islam militants, saying it was a fight against terrorism and "a battle of dignity and national sovereignty."

In a speech commemorating Wednesday's Army Day, Suleiman called the military deaths in the Nahr el-Bared fighting "great sacrifices" to safeguard the country's unity and peace.

The army has refused to halt its military offensive before the militants fully surrender, but the gunmen have vowed to fight to the death.

Fatah Islam spokesman Abu Salim Taha has warned the group would send suicide bombers against the army if it continued its offensive.

On Saturday, Lebanese troops stormed one of the hideouts in the camp, killing eight militants, the NNA reported.

The conflict in Nahr el-Bared 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.

Meanwhile, French mediation has failed to produce any breakthroughs to ease Lebanon's deepening political crisis.

France, the former colonial power, has encouraged dialogue between the Western-backed government of Prime Minister Fuad Saniora and the Hezbollah-led opposition, which are locked in a fierce power struggle.

But French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner failed after two days of talks with rival Lebanese leaders to get them to agree to resume dialogue, which has been stalled since November.

Before leaving for Cairo Sunday, Kouchner brought together rival Lebanese leaders for lunch at the French Embassy, describing the meeting as a "success" and an encouraging sign. But no agreement was announced that Lebanon's 14 Christian and Muslim feuding factions would meet soon to try to resolve their political differences.

Sunday's meeting came a day after Kouchner warned that Lebanon could face a new civil war if its feuding political chiefs failed to resolve the crisis.