Lebanon's defense minister said Thursday that Islamic militants holed up in a north Lebanon refugee camp have been defeated and that the month-long military operation is over, except for mopping up.
"The Lebanese army has crushed those terrorists," Defense Minister Elias Murr said in a television interview late Thursday.
"I can notify the Lebanese that the military operation is over," he said. What is happening now is some cleanup ... and dismantling some mines."
"The Lebanese army has destroyed all Fatah al-Islam positions," Murr declared on the private Lebanese Broadcasting Television.
However, a few hours before he spoke sporadic battles continued in the Nahr el-Bared refugee camp outside the northern port city of Tripoli.
Murr said the camp would remain a theater of operations and under siege "until they [remaining fighters] surrender."
He said a large number of Fatah al-Islam leaders have been killed in the battles while leader Shaker al-Absi, his deputy, Abu Hureira, and others were on the run, suggesting they were hiding deep inside the camp among the local population.
Several thousand Palestinian refugees remain holed up inside the camp.
His comments came after a few days of heavy combat in which troops destroyed several compounds of buildings that housed Fatah al-Islam's positions on the camp's fringes in what has become known as the new camp.
But it appeared parts of the old camp - the densely populated neighborhoods with narrow, winding streets where most of the Palestinian refugees lived - remained outside army control.
Murr's comments meant that the army would not storm the old camp but rather wait for the surrender of the militants, or launch commando raids to capture them. The minister said 76 soldiers had been killed and 150 wounded in the fighting.
Some cabinet ministers in the Western-backed government and members of the anti-Syrian coalition have claimed Fatah al-Islam was created by Syrian intelligence to destabilize Lebanon. Both Syria and Fatah al-Islam have denied the accusation.
Earlier Thursday, Murr cautioned the country's politicians against concluding that Fatah al-Islam militants have links with Syria, saying it was too early to tell, according to Nahar Ash-Shabab, a weekly supplement of Lebanon's leading An-Nahar newspaper.
"Does the government so far have an official confession about the links of these [Fatah al-Islam militants] or some of them to Syria? So far, there is no answer, and we have to wait for the next days," Murr was quoted as saying.
Plumes of black and white smoke were seen rising over Nahr el-Bared earlier Thursday, as Lebanese troops blasted the camp with artillery and tank fire.
The resumption of fighting came a day after Palestinian mediators presented to the Lebanese army a cease-fire deal they negotiated with the militants that would include their disarmament.
A Palestinian Muslim cleric who has been acting as mediator told The Associated Press on Thursday he was still waiting for the army's response.
The defense minister said the army launched its offensive against the militants on May 20 after 30 soldiers were "killed by treachery." He did not give details, but security officials have said that 13 were killed while they slept in their tents in the northern town of Tripoli.
Murr said a number of militants were arrested in Tripoli before the fighting erupted in Nahr el-Bared, including members of Fatah al-Islam, Al-Qaida and a group that attacked the Lebanese army in the northern region of Dinniyah in 1999.
On Wednesday, Lebanese troops had advanced in the refugee camp, taking over several buildings, including one that was known to be a major Fatah al-Islam stronghold, security officials said.
Military experts were clearing buildings, streets and houses of explosives placed by the militants, the officials said.
The fighting in Nahr el-Bared, the worst internal violence since the 1975-90 civil war, has claimed the lives of more than 150 people, including 76 soldiers, at least 60 militants and more than 20 civilians.
It comes amid a fierce power struggle between Lebanon's government and the opposition led by Hezbollah.
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