MOHAMMARA, Lebanon – The last militant stronghold of a Palestinian refugee camp devastated by more than three months of fighting between Islamic fighters and Lebanese
soldiers fell to the army on Sunday, security officials said.
Hours after the army killed 32 militants and captured at least 15 others as they tried to break out of the Nahr el-Bared camp, only occasional gunfire could be heard inside.
The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the last stronghold of Fatah Islam militants fell later in the day to the army, which captured five wounded militants in their hideout.
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 monthslong siege. The military said three soldiers were killed in Sunday’s fighting and two on Saturday, raising to 158 the total number of troops killed 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.
Before Sunday’s battle, Lebanese officials had said up to 70 Fatah Islam fighters remained in the camp. When the fighting erupted more than three months ago, the number was estimated at 360.
According to security officials and television reports, a group of militants sneaked through an underground tunnel to an area of the camp under army control and fought with troops. At the same time, another group of militants struck elsewhere to try to escape, reportedly receiving help from militants outside.
State television reported that Lebanese residents of nearby villages, armed
with guns and sticks, fanned out to protect their houses and prevent militants from melting into the local population. Smoke billowed from a field near the camp where residents said the army set fire to bushes to deny militants a hiding place.