Lebanese Army unleashes bombardments against al-Qaida-inspired militants

A thick blanket of smoke filled a Palestinian refugee camp Thursday as the army started one of its heaviest bombardments against al-Qaida-inspired militants holed up inside.

But the army, which lost four soldiers in the renewed attack, according to a senior military official, denied it was conducting a final assault against the Fatah Islam fighters barricaded in Nahr el-Bared camp.

The four soldiers, including an officer, were killed by shrapnel or gunfire during the fierce fighting, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Thursday's fatalities brought to 90 the number of soldiers killed since fighting began on May 20 near the northern port city of Tripoli.

An armored personnel carrier was seen ferrying at least two wounded soldiers out of the camp, but the total injured was not known, reported the official.

A Lebanese man, identified as Adel al-Ajel, died later Thursday in a hospital after being hit in the head by a stray bullet on a highway near Nahr el-Bared, the state-run National News Agency reported.

The intense bombardment of suspected militant hideouts with tank and artillery fire began at 4 a.m. (0100 GMT) Thursday and subsided around noon (0900 GMT). From five to 10 artillery shells slammed into the camp every minute, landing among Nahr el-Bared's bombed-out buildings with orange bursts and plumes of white smoke. Heavy machine gun fire could also be heard.

Meanwhile, army gunboats pounded Fatah Islam positions near the coast, the NNA reported.

The operation started only hours after some 150 civilians fled on foot from the camp Wednesday as soldiers positioned around Nahr el-Bared moved up tanks and armored vehicles.

The army build up came after a sniper inside Nahr el-Bared killed a soldier late Tuesday night and following repeated refusals by the Fatah Islam group to surrender.

In a statement Thursday denying reports that it had ordered a final assault, the army said that "the ongoing military operations are still in the context of tightening the noose on the gunmen to force them to surrender."

The violence came on the anniversary of the start of Israel's war with Hezbollah guerrillas in southern Lebanon last summer. In an address to mark the occasion, Prime Minister Fuad Saniora late Wednesday called for "putting a final end" to the standoff at Nahr el-Bared.

Lebanese officials claimed victory June 21 after soldiers seized Fatah Islam positions on the camp's edges, but the militants retreated deeper into the warren of narrow lanes of densely packed buildings and continued to engage in daily fire fights.

At least 60 militants and more than 20 civilians have been reported killed in the fighting, the country's worst internal violence since the 1975-90 civil war. The camp housed more than 30,000 Palestinian refugees before the battles began.

Most of the camp's residents have already fled, but a few thousand are thought to have stayed in their homes. Those fleeing Wednesday were mostly men, accompanied by some women and a few children.

Samar Kadi, an International Red Cross official, said more than 150 Palestinians fled, and witnesses said those suspected of ties with Fatah Islam were taken for questioning by the army.

Among those fleeing were fighters of the Palestinian Fatah movement and other factions who stayed in the camp to defend positions against attack by Fatah Islam. The refugees were urged by Palestinian officials in northern Lebanon to leave in anticipation of an army assault, reported the officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

Meanwhile, Lebanon's top military magistrate Rashid Mezher issued formal arrest warrants for three Fatah Islam militants Thursday after charging them with carrying out terrorist acts, court officials said.

The three - an Algerian, a Tunisian and a Lebanese - are already in police custody, but the warrants help justify continued detention.

Mezher formally charged the three with killing Lebanese soldiers and carrying out terrorist acts, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

The exact number of Fatah Islam militants arrested since the group clashed with the army has not been disclosed. But Defense Minister Elias Murr said last month that about 40 militants, including some suspected of links with al-Qaida, had been arrested.