- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 2, 2007

TRIPOLI, Lebanon — A missile-firing helicopter joined the Lebanese army offensive against al Qaeda-inspired militants yesterday, the second day of a push against Islamic fighters vowing a fight to the death inside a Palestinian refugee camp.

Army tanks shelled militant hideouts in the Nahr el-Bared camp by this northern port city, blasting upper floors of buildings where the militants placed snipers.

A Lebanese air force helicopter fired two missiles and strafed militant positions in the first use of air power since fighting began with the Fatah Islam group on May 20. The air attack was an apparent attempt to block an escape route to the Mediterranean Sea.

Four soldiers were killed and 10 were wounded yesterday in the offensive aimed at uprooting gunmen barricaded in the refugee camp.

The casualties raised the army’s death toll to 38 in two weeks. At least 20 civilians and about 60 militants were killed by Friday, but casualties in the camp in the last two days were unknown because relief organizations were banned from entering.

Prime Minister Fuad Siniora said about 250 members of Fatah Islam were still inside the camp. He promised Palestinians who fled Nahr el-Bared that they will be able to return and the camp will be rebuilt.

The militants “have no choice but to surrender,” Mr. Siniora told Dubai-based Al Arabiya television, adding that the government would “assure this group justice and a fair trial.”

There were signs that Palestinians trapped inside the camp were trying to squeeze the militants out.

Abu Jaber, an official of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine — a key Palestinian guerrilla faction that has stayed out of the fighting — told Lebanese Broadcasting Corp. television that Palestinians were trying to “isolate” the militants by locking up houses and barricading camp neighborhoods to keep them out.

Most of the camp’s 31,000 refugees fled to the nearby Beddawi camp earlier in the fighting, but at least 5,000 are thought to still be inside.

Officials claim dozens of Fatah Islam militants were killed and wounded since Friday. But the group’s deputy commander, Abu Hureira, said only two fighters were wounded in the last two days.

Speaking to the Associated Press by cell phone, with gunfire crackling in the background, he denied reports that he and the group’s leader, Shaker Youssef al-Absi, were wounded.

Conditions on the ground could not be verified. Journalists were pushed back from the camp.

Lebanese security officials said Nahr el-Bared was 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.

The army said the armed militants had taken up positions in the camp mosques and humanitarian centers, holding civilians as “human shields.”

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