Lebanese intelligence agents kill 2, including a leader of al-Qaida-inspired group

BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanese security forces killed two suspected Islamist militants Saturday, including the leader of an al-Qaida-inspired group that fought a bloody battle against Lebanon's army in 2007, two Lebanese military officials said.

A senior army official said one of those killed was Abdul-Rahman Awad, a Palestinian leader of the Fatah Islam group. Awad's aide, Ghazi Faysal Abdullah, who was also known as "Abu Bakr," was also killed in the gunbattle in the town of Chtaura, in the eastern Bekaa Valley, the official said.

Another army officer said Awad's brother identified Awad's body. Both officers spoke on condition of anonymity, in line with regulations.

Awad was one of the most wanted men in Lebanon, and his death would mark a major blow to Fatah Islam. The group was little known before the summer of 2007 when it battled the Lebanese army for three months in the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr el-Bared in northern Lebanon. About 220 militants and 171 soldiers were killed in the fighting. Palestinian officials put the civilian death toll at 47.

It has been blamed for deadly blasts that killed more than a dozen Lebanese soldiers in the northern city of Tripoli two years ago, as well as an attack on U.N. peacekeepers patrolling an area near Lebanon's border with Israel.

Lebanon's authorities have stepped up pressure on the group since the 2007 clashes, and last year, a Lebanese military court convicted 12 Fatah Islam members of carrying out terrorist acts, including a bomb attack on U.N. peacekeepers. Five of the men — including Awad— received life sentences in absentia.

A Lebanese army statement confirmed that two militants were killed Saturday after a gunbattle broke out when officers tried to detain them, but the statement did not identify those killed.

Awad, who was about 40, was born in the Palestinian refugee camp of Ein el-Hilweh, an infamous haven for militants in southern Lebanon, and was married with several children. He was known by his nick name, "Shahrour," while some referred to him as "Abu Mohammed."

The one-time leader of Fatah Islam, Shaker al-Absi, has not been heard from since the 2007 clashes with the army. In 2008, a statement purportedly posted by the group on an Islamic militant website said al-Absi was probably killed in Syria.

The statement also said the group had elected Abu Mohammed Awad as its leader but gave no further details.