NAHR BARED, Lebanon (AFP) â€” Lebanese troops unleashed an intense artillery bombardment on Saturday against positions of Islamist fighters who have been holed up inside a refugee camp for almost a month.An AFP correspondent near the camp said heavy artillery shelling began early after a largely quiet night interrupted only by the crackle of light-arms fire.Clouds of smoke and flames from several fires could be seen rising over the northern sector of the Nahr Bared camp, the stronghold of the Fateh Islam extremists.
The sustained attack followed an army statement on Friday in which it vowed to continue to “expand the zone under its control in the camp and to paralyse the movements of what remains of the band of terrorists”.
Around 2,000 Palestinian refugees are believed to remain in the camp which was home to 31,000 before fighting erupted on May 20, the deadliest internal violence in Lebanon since the 1975-1990 civil war. On Friday, four soldiers were killed and others wounded when a booby-trapped building which they were searching collapsed on them. A fifth died of his wounds on Saturday, bringing the toll in the clashes to 135 killed, including 68 troops and 50 Islamist fighters. The army also announced it had destroyed a big ammunition depot of Fateh Islam, and repeated its demand for the Islamist radicals to surrender.
Many of the extremists, who share the same ideology of Osama Ben Laden’s Al Qaeda network, are believed to have fought against US-led forces in Iraq and are considered battle hardened veterans.
Washington has rushed military aid to Lebanon to help the army’s offensive, and has warned US citizens in the country to keep a low profile due to the threat of retaliatory attacks.
The fighting comes against a backdrop of mounting political instability in deeply divided Lebanon, where another prominent MP was assassinated in a Beirut car bombing on Wednesday.
The murder of Walid Eido, a vocal critic of the Syrian regime which is accused of fomenting unrest in neighbouring Lebanon, provoked international outrage with US President George W. Bush hinting at Syrian involvement.
His murder followed a string of bomb and grenade attacks that have now killed 12 people, including former prime minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005, and wounded dozens more.
Saudi King Abdullah ordered payment of $10 millionÂ to help refugees displaced by the fighting here and to refugees in the nearby Baddawi camp, the official Saudi news agency SPA said.
Many of the refugees who fled Nahr Bared found shelter in Baddawi, already home to about 16,000 people.
UAE President Sheikh Khalifa Ben Zayed Nahayan also made an order for aid totalling $5 million to go to the UN Palestinian refugee agency to help the displaced camp inhabitants, local newspapers said.