Lebanese artillery hits refugee camp

NAHR AL-BARED, Lebanon - Lebanese troops, backed by artillery, tanks and gunships, continued to tighten their grip on Al Qaeda-inspired militants at a Palestinian refugee camp at the weekend.

Security sources said Fatah al-Islam militants, who have vowed to fight to the death, were putting up stiff resistance as soldiers pounded Nahr al-Bared camp and consolidated its newly seized positions at its entrances.

Explosions rocked the camp as the crackle of machinegun fire echoed. Plumes of smoke rose from the camp as shelling set buildings on fire.

But the fighting appeared to be less intense than on Friday and Saturday, witnesses said yesterday. The shelling since Friday has devastated large parts of the camp, bringing down buildings used by the gunmen to fire at the soldiers, but also destroying many civilian homes.

A camp resident said: "There is no square metre that has not been hit by a shell. We can't leave the building we are in, let alone the street, to find out the full extent of the devastation."

Most of Nahr al-Bared's nearly 40000 population fled to other refugee camps in the past two weeks because of increasingly desperate humanitarian conditions.

More than 16 people - militants and civilians - have died in the refugee camp. Fatah al-Islam said it had lost three fighters.

The fighting, which erupted on May 20, is Lebanon's worst internal violence since the 1975 to 1990 civil war.

The government says Fatah al-Islam triggered the siege by attacking army positions around the camp as well as Lebanon's second largest city, Tripoli.

The death toll in the two-week-old conflict stood at 107, of whom 42 are soldiers and at least 34 are militants. Twenty civilians have also been killed in the conflict. - Reuters