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Lebanese Army Tightens Grip on Palestinian Militants

09 June 2007

Three more Lebanese soldiers were killed and at least a dozen injured Saturday in stepped-up clashes with Islamic militants hiding out in a Palestinian refugee camp, as fighting entered its 20th day. VOA's Margaret Besheer has more from Beirut.

The army says it is gradually taking control of positions held by Fatah al-Islam, the band of al-Qaida inspired militants holed up in the Nahr el-Bared Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon.

Smoke billowed over the camp Saturday, where witnesses reported some of the heaviest army shelling since June 1, when the military launched an all-out assault to drive the fighters from their hiding places. A main road running along side the camp was closed for the first time in several days. It was not immediately clear if the army was preparing to make a final push toward Nahr el-Bared in its drive to crush the militants.

Camp resident Fathi Abu Ali told VOA by telephone from inside Nahr el-Bared that "today has been a disaster." He said the army began shelling at 5 a.m. and continued throughout the day.

Nahr el-Bared is normally home to some 40,000 Palestinians, but most have evacuated to some of the country's 11 other Palestinian camps. Aid agencies estimate some 4,000 remain in deteriorating and dangerous conditions.

Abu Ali, who has been in the camp throughout the three-week-long siege, tells VOA there is no electricity and little water. He says it has been three days since aid groups have been able to deliver bread to residents.

Muslim clerics have been trying to mediate an end to the fighting but so far they have been unsuccessful.

The militants were estimated to be a few hundred when the fighting began. At least 32 have been captured, and an unknown number have been killed.

Lebanon's government has demanded that the fighters surrender and face justice. Fatah al-Islam says it will fight to the death.

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