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More than 220 militants killed by Lebanese Army since May - minister

RIA Novosti

04/09/2007 14:32 BEIRUT, September 4 (RIA Novosti) - More than 220 militants belonging to the al-Qaeda inspired Fatah al-Islam movement were killed and more than 200 captured by the Lebanese Army in a 15-week operation to root them out of a refugee camp, Lebanon's defense minister said Tuesday.

"Since the beginning of operations, 222 terrorists have been killed and 202 captured," Elias al-Murr told a news briefing. "This victory uprooted the biggest threat that faced the Lebanese people because Fatah al-Islam was spreading like cancer cells to target each part of the nation."

An unknown number of dead militants had also been buried by their own comrades in mass graves, he said, adding that Lebanese Army losses numbered 163 killed.

The Lebanese Army launched offensive operations May 20 against Fatah al-Islam, whose members had barricaded themselves in the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp, in northern Lebanon, and ended Sunday in a fierce gun battle in which the leader of the group, Shaker al-Abssi, was killed.

After the Lebanese Army stormed the camp, killing and arresting nearly all the remaining insurgents, a Fatah al-Islam prisoner positively identified al-Abssi's body. However, Lebanese authorities are awaiting the results of a DNA test before officially announcing the militant leader's death.

During the battle, around 35 members of the Islamist organization were reported killed. In a deal brokered between security forces and fighters, the group members' wives and children were allowed to leave August 24.

The scene of some of the country's most brutal fighting in over a decade, the final showdown between the radical Islamist group and the Lebanese Army erupted when fighters attempted a night breakout from the camp.

Celebrations broke out among local residents after the conclusion of the battle, and troops were reportedly greeted rapturously by crowds of villagers.

Russia's Foreign Ministry welcomed the end of the counterterrorism operation, saying Moscow hoped the situation in the country would stabilize.

"Russia has always supported the actions of the Lebanese authorities in their attempts to restore law and order. By this we mean the complete control of the Lebanese government over the entire territory of Lebanon in line with the resolutions of the UN Security Council," the ministry said in a statement Monday.

The siege of Nahr al-Bared, originally home to around 40,000, began May 20 when militants holed up in the camp launched attacks against Lebanese security forces in response to police raids on insurgent hideouts in Tripoli. By early June, most of the camp's refugees had fled to other camps.

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