BEIRUT, Lebanon – Lebanese troops killed six Islamic militants during a gunbattle in a northern Lebanon town on Thursday, a military official said.
A number of soldiers were also slightly wounded in the clash that occurred in the wilderness near the village of Qalamoun, some 3 miles south of the northern port city of Tripoli, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Hospital officials in Qalamoun also said six militants were killed in the clash — three Saudis, two Lebanese and a sixth man whose nationality was not immediately known.
But a security official in Beirut identified the slain militants as three Saudis, two Syrians and an Iraqi. There was no immediate explanation for the discrepancy.
The slain militants were members of the Al Qaeda-inspired Fatah Islam group that has been locked in fierce fighting with the Lebanese army in a Palestinian refugee camp near Tripoli since May 20, said the security official, speaking on customary condition of anonymity.
The military official said the army began its operation at dawn on Thursday, with troops, backed by helicopters, pursuing militants who had taken refuge in Qalamoun's forests and nearby mountainous areas. The militants were eliminated in the operation, but the army was still conducting cleanup, the official added.
"The operation has not ended yet because the army is still cleaning the area of booby traps and checking to see whether the (slain) gunmen's bodies were rigged with bombs," the official told The Associated Press.
Talal Dankar, Qalamoun's mayor, said life in the village was not affected because the fighting raged in remote mountainous areas.
"We first heard the din of gunfire before fighting intensified. We saw the army bringing in reinforcements to the mountainous area above Qalamoun," Dankar told the private Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation television. "The army has eliminated the gunmen."
The clashes in Qalamoun were the first since May 20 between the Lebanese army and Fatah Islam outside Tripoli or the Nahr el-Bared camp, a 15-minute drive north of the city. The violence underlines the challenges the military is facing in its crackdown on Fatah Islam militants, who first ambushed the army in Nahr el-Bared and in Qalamoun five weeks ago, triggering the fighting.
The army command has vowed to crush the militants, particularly since some 30 soldiers were killed in cold blood during the first day of fighting — some as they slept in their tents around Nahr el-Bared and others who were off-duty and ambushed on the highway in Qalamoun.
Fatah Islam leaders have threatened to take the fighting with the Lebanese army outside the camp if it continues its military offensive.
Last Sunday, Lebanese troops raided an apartment complex in Tripoli suspected of housing Islamic militants, sparking a gunbattle that left 10 people dead, including six militants.
An army soldier, a policeman and two family members were also killed in the fighting, which began when troops seized a building where militants had taken refuge after nighttime clashes.
The fighting in Nahr el-Bared camp has been Lebanon's worst internal violence since the 1975-90 civil war, and is believed to have claimed the lives of more than 160, including 84 soldiers, at least 60 militants and more than 20 civilians.
Last week, Lebanese Defense Minister Elias Murr declared victory over Fatah Islam, but heavy machine gun fire and bursts of artillery shells have continued to reverberate across the camp.
The Lebanese army on Wednesday accused Fatah Islam militants still barricaded in the Nahr el-Bared camp of hiding among Palestinian civilians trapped in the settlement and confiscating humanitarian aid sent to them.
In a statement, the army urged Palestinians inside the camp to persuade the militants to turn themselves in.
Murr said Tuesday that some 300 Islamic militants have been killed or wounded in the fighting, leaving only a few dozen fighters hiding in the besieged camp.
The International Red Cross said Wednesday that the ongoing fighting close to the camp's southern entrance has hampered humanitarian operations in the last week.
Jordi Raich Curco, head of the Red Cross' delegation in Lebanon, said in a statement that the most recent delivery of aid to Nahr el-Bared, consisting of 760 kilograms of food, took place on 20 June. Several thousand civilians are believed to be trapped inside the camp.