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Lebanese soldiers kill 6 in clashes with militants

Those slain in a raid are said to be members of an Islamist group.

June 29, 2007|Raed Rafei | Special to The Times

BEIRUT — Lebanese soldiers battled Islamic militants Thursday in northern Lebanon, killing six members of an Al Qaeda-inspired group in a mountainous area near the Syrian border, military officials said.

The clashes near the town of Kalamoun began about 3 a.m. Thursday, when the army raided caves in the hills overlooking Tripoli where the militants were hiding, a military source said. He requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

The militants killed in the fighting were believed to be with Fatah al Islam, a radical Sunni group that for the last 40 days has battled the Lebanese army in the nearby Palestinian refugee camp, Nahr el Bared.

The fighting underscored concern in Lebanon that the conflict with radical Sunni groups inspired by Al Qaeda may be spreading to the rest of the country.

"There are fears that more dormant cells might be present in the north," said Ahmed Ayoubi, a Tripoli-based expert on Islamist groups. "It will take time for the army to eradicate all these groups because they might be infiltrating civilian areas."

Military officials believe the fighters had been hiding in the caves with stockpiles of arms and ammunitions since an attack on a nearby military post May 20, the day the battle against Fatah al Islam began.

The slain militants included Saudis, Iraqis and Syrians, the army source said. Two soldiers were slightly injured, according to an army statement.

Six Sunni radicals were killed Sunday in Tripoli after an hours-long gun battle in an apartment complex on the outskirts of the city. The fighting claimed the lives of three civilians and two members of the Lebanese security forces.

The fighting in the north is the worst internal violence since a 15-year civil war ended in 1990. At least 84 soldiers and 60 militants have been killed. There are no reliable tallies of civilian casualties because aid organizations and the media have had little access to the refugee camp.

Although Lebanese Defense Minister Elias Murr announced last week that the military operation had ended, the army continued to exchange fire with the Islamist fighters holed up in the Nahr el Bared camp.

"The battle is taking time because the terrorists are firing from inside the camp, where some civilians are still present," the military official said.

As many as 1,000 civilians are believed to be caught up in the fighting, said an official with the International Committee of the Red Cross. Conditions in the camp are "very difficult," the official said.

Red Cross convoys haven't been able to bring in food or medical assistance in three days, the official said.

In the last few months, Lebanese authorities have arrested hundreds of Islamists with suspected links to the Al Qaeda terrorist network. Some of the suspects planned to attack hotels, embassies and United Nations troops, officials have said.

On Sunday, a roadside bomb killed six peacekeepers with the Spanish contingent.

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Times staff writer Louise Roug in Beirut contributed to this report.

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