MOHAMMARA, Lebanon – Lebanese troops exchanged fire with militants on the run Monday, as the military swept a Palestinian refugee camp and surrounding areas in northern Lebanon to try to capture the last holdouts after a climactic battle.
The army launched a volley of artillery fire for over an hour in the afternoon after television reports said some fugitives opened fire and threw a hand grenade at a military patrol, injuring two soldiers. The state-run National News Agency said two militants were killed and three were captured in a building following the brief exchange.
The exchange marred the festive mood that engulfed the country after the army on Sunday crushed the Al Qaeda-inspired Fatah Islam in a ferocious final battle, killing 39, capturing 24 and ending a three-month siege that cost the army 158 soldiers and devastated the Nahr el-Bared refugee camp.
On Monday, soldiers on the ground, along with helicopters and speedboats in the Mediterranean Sea, searched neighborhoods, scorched bushes and coastal waters for an unknown number of militants who escaped the dragnet.
The camp remained off limits to the Palestinian refugees who had lived there and had fled Nahr el-Bared in the fighting's early days on orders of the army. Inside the camp, military sappers combed destroyed neighborhoods, looking for booby traps, unexploded shells and mines.
The body of Fatah Islam leader Shaker al-Absi was identified by his wife at a hospital in the nearby port city of Tripoli, said Nasser Adra, the hospital's director. However, Adra told The Associated Press that the hospital could not officially confirm the identity, which would have to come from judicial authorities after a DNA test, results of which could be announced on Tuesday.
Al-Absi, a Palestinian linked to the late leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, has not been seen or heard from since early in the fighting that started May 20.
His brother, Abdul-Razzak, told the AP in Jordan he would ask authorities to have the body brought there for "a celebration for his martyrdom." It was not clear whether Jordan would allow a a burial there.
A Jordanian military court sentenced al-Absi to death in absentia in 2004, along with al-Zarqawi, for their roles in the 2002 slaying of a U.S. diplomat in Amman. Al-Zarqawi was killed in a U.S. airstrike a year ago.
Sunday's final battle between the army and Fatah Islam erupted as the militants attempted a three-pronged breakout from Nahr el-Bared but were soon locked in a fierce battle with troops, who took over the camp unopposed within hours. Lebanese civilians in nearby villages, armed with guns and sticks, fanned out to protect their houses.
Fatah Islam's collapse brought an end to Lebanon's worst internal fighting since the 1975-90 civil war. At least 20 civilians were also killed in the three-month battle.
Villagers, townspeople and troops celebrated in the streets, shooting in the air, waving Lebanese flags and flashing victory signs into the night. Other regions celebrated with fireworks, drumming and dancing.
Amer Ahmed Farasha, 27, opened his shop in Mohammara for the first time on Monday after keeping his doors shut for three months because of the nearby fighting.
He offered free car washes for military vehicles and dedicated the day to the Lebanese army.
"So far, I've washed three armored personnel carriers on my first day of business," Farasha said, his wife standing next to him.
Fatah Islam, estimated at its height at about 360 fighters, had set up its headquarters at Nahr el-Bared since last fall. Some officials say the group is a branch of Al Qaeda that wanted to make Lebanon and the Palestinian refugee camps their a safe haven.
The camp's siege began in late May after the militants attacked troops nearby.