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Militants are driven from Lebanon refugee camp

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BEIRUT, Lebanon — The Lebanese army wrested a Palestinian refugee camp from the control of Islamic militants on Sunday, ending three months of fierce fighting that had taken more than 300 lives and transfixed Lebanon. 

(New York Times News Service) BEIRUT, Lebanon — The Lebanese army wrested a Palestinian refugee camp from the control of Islamic militants on Sunday, ending three months of fierce fighting that had taken more than 300 lives and transfixed Lebanon.{mxc}

The surprise end to the camp standoff came when about 70 militants tried to escape at dawn on Sunday. As they neared army positions, soldiers fired on them, killing at least 31, including the group’s leader, Shakir al-Abssi, and capturing 32, the army said. Five soldiers were killed in the gunfire.

The camp, Nahr al Bared, had been home to 30,000 people, most of whom fled when the conflict started at the end of May. On Sunday, the state-run National News Agency reported that soldiers patrolled the empty camp, much of which had been leveled by army bombs, as helicopters searched for any remaining militants.

It was unclear why the group, Fatah al Islam, comprising radical Sunnis inspired by al-Qaida, chose Sunday to attempt their breakout. But the army had tightened its grip on the camp recently and ratcheted up its bombings over the past week, after family members of the fighters were permitted to leave. The remaining fighters were thought to be running out of ammunition and food.

The militants’ failed last stand has burnished the image of the army, which is viewed by Lebanese across the political spectrum as the only institution in the country that represents the state, not individual factions.

Banners and posters saluting the army have decorated Lebanese streets for the past several months. On Facebook, the online social network, Lebanese have created groups of army supporters. Banks have designed new credit cards with camouflage colors.

As news from the camp spread Sunday, Lebanese from different political backgrounds, including those allied to Hezbollah, took to the streets across the country in celebration.

"The army is emerging as the guardian of the state of Lebanon," said Hilal Khashan, a political science professor at the American University of Beirut. "Politicians have failed; therefore the army is the only institution capable of shoring the country toward peace."

The camp siege began on May 20, when Fatah al Islam fighters who had taken control of the camp attacked nearby army checkpoints, killing 22 soldiers. At least 120 militants and 42 civilians have been killed in the conflict, as well as 157 soldiers, including the five on Sunday.

 

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