Lebanese troops raided a cave hideout of Islamic gunmen in the hills of northern Lebanon on Thursday and killed six fighters, as the violence continued to spread from a Palestinian refugee camp where the military has been battling an Al Qaeda-inspired group.The dawn hillside gunbattle â€” just a 20-minute drive away from the Nahr Bared Palestinian camp by the northern port city of Tripoli â€” underscored the challenges the army faces in crushing the Fateh Islam gunmen.
It also showed that Fateh Islam may have found allies among some of the region’s other Sunni gunmen and who did not necessarily follow that group.
The fighting at Nahr Bared has already become the worst internal violence since Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war, and is believed to have claimed the lives of more than 160 people, including 84 soldiers, at least 60 gunmen and more than 20 civilians.
Fighting first began five weeks ago in Tripoli, a largely Sunni city. Then, it shifted to the Nahr Bared camp itself, after the gunmen barricaded themselves inside it.
Last weekend, it moved back to Tripoli, and on Thursday to the hills near Qalamoun, 5 kilometres south of Tripoli.
The military said that a number of soldiers were slightly wounded in Thursday’s clashes as troops, backed by helicopters, descended on a Fateh Islam hideout obscured by dense growth in the hills above the Mediterranean coastline.
The army was apparently tipped about the hideout by residents of a nearby village who had spotted strangers in the area.
An army statement said a unit pursuing gunmen in the area clashed with “a group of terrorists” barricaded inside a cave.
“The force eliminated all six members of the group, seizing a quantity of arms and ammunition,” it said. The six dead gunmen were of different nationalities, the army said but did not identify them.
Qalamoun hospital officials said the dead included three Saudis, two Lebanese and a sixth man whose nationality was not immediately known. However, a security official in Beirut identified the slain gunmen as three Saudis, two Syrians and an Iraqi. There was no immediate explanation for the discrepancy.
The slain gunmen were all members of Fateh Islam, said the security official, speaking on customary condition of anonymity. The group is believed to consist of mostly foreigners who have come to Lebanon to join Fateh Islam.
The army has vowed to crush the gunmen ever since some 30 soldiers were killed in cold blood during the first day of fighting â€” some as they slept in their tents around Nahr Bared, and others, who were off-duty, were ambushed on the highway in Qalamoun.
Thursday’s military statement vowed “to track down terrorists relentlessly” and not to leave them “any safe haven” to stage attacks.
President Emile Lahoud reiterated on Thursday a demand that the gunmen surrender “as the only way” to end the fighting in the camp, parts of which have been devastated by the army bombardment.
Most of the camp’s 30,000 Palestinians have fled to another camp nearby, but dozens of armed gunmen are believed to be still holed up in Nahr Bared, along with several thousand civilians.
Fateh Islam leaders have threatened to take the fighting with the Lebanese army outside the camp if it continues its military offensive at Nahr Bared.
On Sunday, Lebanese troops raided an apartment complex in Tripoli suspected of housing Islamic gunmen, sparking a gunbattle that left six gunmen, a soldier, a policeman and two relatives dead. Police were still investigating whether those gunmen had any links to Fateh Islam.