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Fighting resumes at camp

world Updated: Jun 04, 2007 00:31 IST

Sporadic fighting again erupted on Sunday between the Lebanese army and Islamist militants inside a Palestinian refugee camp, following a night of relative calm.

The thud of shelling and the rattle of machinegun fire were heard shortly before noon around the Nahr al-Bared camp, located outside the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli. The continued fighting follows heavy gun battles between government forces and the Fatah al-Islam militia Saturday.

"The army is still today cleaning pockets of terrorists," a military spokesman said. "I can say now that the army is controlling at least four to five positions which used to be manned by the militants and we are closing the siege on them."

Tanks were seen clearly approaching the outskirts of the camp to tighten the siege on the militants who refused to surrender.

"We refuse to surrender ... we will die here," said Fatah al-Islam spokesman Abu Selim.

Selim, in a telephone call with the Doha-based al-Jazeera satellite news channel, accused the United Nations Interim Forces in Southern Lebanon (UNIFIL) of helping the Lebanese army by shelling the group's bases from the sea.

The accusation was immediately denied by the UNIFIL command.

On Saturday, Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Seniora had warned that the militants holed up inside the settlement must surrender or be wiped out.

He said if the militants give up "they will face a fair trial."

The army has since the outbreak of the violence in northern Lebanon on May 20 lost 41 soldiers, while around 49 gunmen have been reportedly killed in the bloodiest internal fighting in Lebanon since the 1975-1990 civil war.

Seniora said the camp's population had fallen from more than 31,000 to fewer than 3,000, including the gunmen, after civilians fled the fighting.

On Saturday, troops heavily pounded with 155mm artillery fire the north-western sector of Nahr al-Bared, where most of the militants were believed to be entrenched.

Two helicopters were also used in Saturday's military operations.

Sheikh Mohammed al-Hajj, a member of a delegation of Palestinian clerics attempting to broker a negotiated solution, called for a halt to the shelling in order to evacuate the wounded from inside the camp.

"We need a ceasefire to allow humanitarian medical aid to the civilians inside the camp," he said.

Under a longstanding Arab agreement, the Lebanese army is prevented to enter 12 Palestinian refugee camps, leaving security inside to Palestinian factions.