Lebanese army kills 32 in camp battle

By Hussein Dakroub, MOHAMMARA, Lebanon, AP

Resistance by al-Qaida inspired militants in a northern Palestinian refugee camp collapsed Sunday, hours after a mass breakout left 32 militants dead, Lebanese security officials said, signaling an end to three months of fighting.

The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media, said the last area of Nahr el-Bared camp held by Fatah Islam fighters fell to the army, which captured five wounded militants in their hideout.

Only occasional gunfire could be heard inside Nahr el-Bared, hours after the officials said the army killed 32 militants and captured at least 15 others when they broke out of the camp and attempted to flee.

But celebratory gunfire erupted in nearby villages as soon as the news spread. Dozens of residents took to the streets of Mohammara, waving Lebanese flags and honking their horns as troop convoys poured into the area with soldiers flashing victory signs.

The army, which said it lost five soldiers in the recent violence, was not ready to formally declare an end to fighting in the camp, large parts of which have been destroyed by army bombardments in the last three and a half months. The military said three soldiers were killed in Sunday’s fighting and two on Saturday, raising to 158 the total number of troops who have died in the conflict.

A military statement early Sunday said troops were attacking the remaining militant strongholds inside Nahr el-Bared and “chasing the fugitives outside the camp” who had staged “a desperate attempt to flee.” It called on Lebanese citizens to inform the nearest army patrol of any suspected militants in their area, but gave no specifics on casualties except saying “a large number” had been killed or captured.

The gunbattles began with the breakout near dawn and tapered off by the afternoon, with troops searching for Fatah Islam fighters in buildings, fields and roads around Nahr el-Bared camp, residents reported.