NAHR AL-BARED, Lebanon (AFP) — Lebanese troops on Sunday took full control of a devastated refugee camp that had been besieged for three months and held by diehard Islamist militants of Fatah al-Islam, the military said.
The Palestinian camp, a honeycomb of tunnels and houses reinforced against possible Israeli air attack, finally fell to a mass assault on Sunday after troops killed at least 37 Islamist militants as they made a desperate pre-dawn bid to break the siege, army and security sources said.
Another 15 Islamists were arrested, some of whom had managed to make it to nearby villages but were caught in the manhunt that included troops searching roofs and watertanks.
More than 220 people, including 158 Lebanese troops, were killed during the standoff which started on May 20 near the sprawling camp outside the northern city of Tripoli.
But Shaker al-Abssi, leader of the group linked ideologically to Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda, appeared to have escaped.
"We believe that Shaker al-Abssi is part of a group that managed to escape," the officer, who did not want to be named, told AFP. "We can confirm that he is not among the militants killed or those taken prisoner."
The officer said that at about 3:30 am (0030 GMT) the militants attempted to break out on three fronts.
One group tried to escape by sea and its members were killed or captured by the army. A second group tried to flee from the north of Nahr al-Bared and met the same fate.
Abssi is believed to have been part of a third group that followed the path of a river running between the southeastern part of the camp and the village of Ayun al-Samak in a remote mountainous region.
Several members of that group were killed, but several escaped and the army was still combing fields and orchards in Ayun al-Samak and areas around the camp on Sunday, the officer said.
Abssi's fate, however, was still unclear as there have been reports in the past that he was dead or had escaped.
The camp was home to some 31,000 Palestinian refugees, most of whom fled in the early days of the standoff.
Nineteen bodies of militants were taken to the main hospital in Tripoli, a hospital official told AFP.
Early in the day, heavy machinegun fire could be heard from the northern edge of the camp as dozens of armoured personnel carriers, jeeps and other vehicles poured into the area. Military helicopters hovered overhead.
However by about 11:00 am (0800 GMT), the fighting had died down and the army said it was no longer encountering any resistance.
"We cannot say the camp is under full army control as there are still pockets we need to clear of mines and explosives and make sure no militants are left inside," the army spokesman said then.
Members of the Internal Security Forces meanwhile strafed fields around the camp with machineguns for fear militants could be hiding there in ambush.
Several ambulances containing body bags were seen leaving the area, sirens blaring.
The army issued a statement appealing to residents of nearby villages to help in the search for militants who may be on the run.
Gunfire later in the day was in celebration of the fall of the camp, an army officer said.
"The shots you are hearing are celebratory shots, the camp has fallen," the officer said.
In their attempted pre-dawn breakout the militants also had help from outside.
"A Mercedes car pulled up at an army checkpoint on the eastern edge of the camp and began firing at soldiers as fighters launched an attack from inside," an army source said, adding this happened around 4:00 a.m (0100 GMT).
Militants at the same time attacked another checkpoint on the southern edge of the camp.
The source said three people in the Mercedes were killed. The white vehicle, windows shattered and tyres flat, was seen being towed away in mid-morning amid heavy security.
The army cordoned off the area while the nearby road linking Tripoli to Syria was closed to traffic.
Local residents meanwhile gathered on the outskirts of the camp cheering at the soldiers and flashing the victory sign.
"We hope that this nightmare ends today," said Rakfat Mubayed. "We are thrilled that the army is now finishing off with this gang of terrorists and criminals."
Several people described seeing soldiers hunt down and capture some of the militants in the village of Muhammara, some two kilometres (a little over a mile) east of the camp.
"At 6:00 am (0300 GMT) I saw troops seize four bearded men dressed in black and kill three others they had surrounded in a lemon grove," said Mohammed Ahmed Hafza, 18, a farmer.
The fighting around the camp has been Lebanon's worst internal violence since the 1975-1990 civil war.
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