By Nazih Siddiq
NAHR AL-BARED, Lebanon, July 12 (Reuters) - Lebanese troops shelled a Palestinian refugee camp in north Lebanon on Thursday but it was unclear if it was the start of the army’s final push against al Qaeda-inspired militants entrenched inside.
Fierce battles between the army and Fatah al-Islam militants have been raging on and off at the coastal Nahr al-Bared camp for nearly eight weeks killing a total of 205 people, the worst internal violence since the 1975-1990 civil war.
Witnesses said the army was shelling the coastal camp since early morning, often at a rate of 7 to 10 tank shells per minute, but it was not clear if the attack was the beginning of the army’s plan to storm the camp after some of the last refugees remaining inside fled on Wednesday.
Security and political sources had said on Wednesday the army deployed extra troops in the area and was expected to use helicopter gunships and naval boats as well as tanks and heavy artillery in any assault on the camp.
They said the army was concerned it would be dragged into a war of attrition with the militants dug in inside the camp’s narrow alleys and decided to move in to crush them after they refused calls to surrender and give up their arms.
The fighting has further undermined stability in Lebanon, which finds itself in a paralysing eight-month-old political crisis, compounded by bombings in and around Beirut and an overall precarious security vacuum, a year since the beginning of the Israeli-Hezbollah war.
The Lebanese government says Fatah al-Islam is a tool of Syrian intelligence, a charge Damascus and Fatah al-Islam deny. The group says it has no organisational ties with al Qaeda, but supports its militant ideology.
Some of its members -- mainly Lebanese, Palestinians, Syrians and Saudis -- have fought in Iraq. Security sources say at least 10 Saudis are among the dead militants.