TRIPOLI, Lebanon – Lebanese troops fought Islamic militants in a northern Palestinian refugee camp and clashed with another group in a southern camp Monday as the violence spawned by a two-week-old confrontation with Al Qaeda-inspired fighters appeared to be spreading.
Two Lebanese soldiers were killed in fighting in the Ein el-Hilweh refugee camp in southern Lebanon between troops stationed outside the camp and Jund al-Sham Islamic militants.
At the same time, Fatah Islam continued its 16-day standoff against the army in the Nahr el-Bared Palestinian refugee camp on the outskirts of this northern Lebanese port city. The overnight exchanges tapered by the morning.
Police said five Lebanese soldiers were wounded in the southern fighting by rocket-propelled grenades and machine gunfire in clashes that have continued on and off since late Sunday. There was no word on militant casualties at Ein el-Hilweh, the largest of Lebanon's 12 Palestinian refugee camps.
Jund al-Sham, which is Arabic for Soldiers of historic Syria, has claimed responsibility or been blamed for a number of bombings and gunbattles, mainly in Lebanon and Syria. Syrian officials have portrayed Jund al-Sham, which is based in Ein el-Hilweh and sympathetic to Fatah Islam, as the most active militant group in their country. The militants are believed to number in the dozens.
In the north, sporadic fighting resumed Monday morning after an overnight lull. The army has been pounding Fatah Islam positions at Nahr el-Bared since May 20 and has moved tanks and armored carriers into the camp in a push to crush the Al Qaeda-inspired militants who refuse to surrender.
But there was relatively less fighting at Nahr el-Bared on Monday than there had been since the army offensive began, suggesting troops were conducting commando operations against specific targets inside the camp.
Many in Lebanon believed the army would be able to crush the Fatah Islam inside Nahr el-Bared quickly, but after three days of fierce battles using artillery and tanks, the troops continued to face strong resistance.
The relentless bombardment has angered Palestinians in some of the 11 country's other refugee camps, a possible recipe for spreading violence.
The Lebanese government has demanded that Fatah Islam surrender, but the militant group's deputy leader rejected the call in a telephone interview with The Associated Press.
"This is not only impossible, this is unthinkable. Our blood is cheaper than handing over our weapons and surrendering," said Abu Hureira, a Lebanese whose real name is Shehab al-Qaddour, said Sunday. He also denied the army had made significant progress in its offensive.
"I am still in the same position since the war began," Abu Hureira said. "Our morals are high and the army did not make any advance."
Lebanese security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to make statements to media, have said that Nahr el-Bared had been strategically divided into three zones. The army was controlling one zone, the militants held another, while Palestinian civilians and guerrillas controlled the third and were refusing the militants sanctuary, they said.
Fatah Islam spokesman Abu Salim Taha, told the AP by cellular telephone that five Fatah Islam members, including a senior leader, have been killed and seven wounded since Friday, when the latest army offensive began.
He also said Fatah Islam militants ambushed an advancing Lebanese force Sunday, pushing it back a few yards amid heavy fighting on the north and northeastern edges of the camp.
A senior Lebanese army officer said nine Lebanese troops have been killed at Nahr el-Bared and about 40 wounded since Friday. The body of one more soldier was retrieved Sunday.
The casualties raised the army's death toll to 45 at Nahr el-Bared and two at Ein el-Hilweh since the standoff began two weeks ago. At least 20 civilians and about 60 militants have also been killed in the northern Lebanon fighting, but casualties in the camp in the last four days were unknown because relief organizations were banned from entering.
Officials said Sunday that a senior leader of Fatah Islam, Naim Deeb Ghali, who is also known as Abu Riad, had been killed in the fighting.
Abu Hureira confirmed that Ghali was killed Friday, but would not say whether he was a senior Fatah Islam official, referring to him only as "a brother."