Lebanon + 1 more

No let up in Lebanon camp battle, casualties mount

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NAHR AL-BARED, Lebanon, June 11 (Reuters) - Lebanese troops rained down artillery and tank fire on a Palestinian refugee camp on Monday, pressing ahead with an assault to crush al Qaeda-inspired militants dug in there.

But despite 23 days of often ferocious fighting at Nahr al-Bared camp, the army did not appear any closer to its declared aim of forcing Fatah al-Islam group to surrender and lay down its arms.

A cloud of smoke hung over the camp as scores of heavy artillery rounds crashed into various areas of Nahr al-Bared, while tank and heavy machinegun fire strafed suspected militant hideouts at the edges of the camp.

The militants hit back with sporadic attacks with mortar bombs and rocket-propelled grenades.

The army is not allowed into Palestinian camps in Lebanon under the terms of a 1969 Arab agreement.

At least 130 people have been killed, including 57 soldiers, in three weeks of fighting, the worst internal clashes since Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war. Eleven soldiers died and more than 100 were wounded in battles at the weekend alone.

Rescue workers have been unable to give an accurate death toll because of the difficulty of moving in the camp -- a sprawling warren of alleyways on the Mediterranean -- but at least 42 militants and 31 civilians have been killed.

The army says the militants had triggered the conflict by attacking its positions around the camp and on the outskirts of the nearby city of Tripoli. Fatah al-Islam says it has been acting in self defence and has vowed to fight to the death.

The fighting has further undermined stability in Lebanon, already paralysed by a seven-month-old political crisis.

Deadly clashes erupted last week in the south at the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, and five bombs have targeted civilian areas in and near Beirut since May 20.

Efforts by Lebanese and Palestinian Islamist politicians and clerics have so far failed in their attempts to broker peaceful end to the conflict, mainly because Fatah al-Islam have refused any talk of surrender or handing over members.

Most of Nahr al-Bared's estimated 40,000 residents have fled to other refugee camps in Lebanon. Some 400,000 Palestinian refugees live in Lebanon, around half in 12 camps.

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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