Three more Lebanese soldiers were killed and five wounded Saturday in renewed fighting between the army and Fatah al-Islam combatants holed up in a Palestinian refugee camp north of Tripoli.
Since fighting started some two weeks ago over 100 people have been killed, with some 40 Lebanese soldiers counted among the casualties.
In the first air force involvement in nearly two weeks of fighting, a Lebanese helicopter gunship fired missiles and strafed with machine gun fire suspected militant positions in the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp on Saturday.
It was not clear what the aircraft was firing at, but it was possibly blocking an escape route by sea for the Fatah Islam combatants. Lebanon has no fixed wing aircraft in its arsenal, but it has 33 helicopters, most of them transports.
Lebanese army spokesmen said the army was preparing to enter the camp to target the gunmen's positions with artillery and automatic fire. Lebanese security officials said earlier that troops had defeated some Fatah Islam militants and taken over their positions.
"The situation in the camp is very miserable ... The shelling was concentrated on all the roads in the camp. More than 60 percent of the camp has been destroyed," said Abu Darwish, a resident of the camp.
A senior Fatah al-Islam commander said Saturday his fighters have abandoned some positions but denied the Lebanese army has advanced into the Palestinian refugee camp where the militants are holed up.
"We have tactically evacuated from a part of the northern area of the camp," said Abu Hureira, the military commander of the Fatah Islam militant group.
He told The Associated Press by cellular phone that the militants were fighting a Lebanese army offensive. "Morale was high," he said, vowing never to surrender. "Let them come. We are ready."
Similar sentiments were expressed by Fatah al-Islam spokesman Abu Salim. "There is no way we will give up our weapons because it is our pride. We cannot even contemplate surrendering," Abu Salim
Taha, spokesman for the Fatah al-Islam militants, he told Reuters.
Meanwhile, a delegation of Palestinian clerics appealed for a truce to transport the wounded to hospitals and to bury the dead.
"Since yesterday morning, the shelling has been ongoing all over the camp. Two shells fell on the building I'm in now. Several buildings have collapsed," said a Palestinian resident inside the camp.
"There's only one clinic with one doctor left. There's no electricity, bread or medicine."
Many Palestinian refugees support the army's moves against the militants, whom they consider alien to the camp's population. Zaki, the Palestinian representative, said Friday after meeting with Prime Minister Fuad Siniora that he hoped the combatants would "surrender to justice."
Fatah al-Islam is an offshoot of the pro-Syrian Fatah Uprising, which broke from the mainstream Fatah movement in the early 1980s, Lebanese officials say.
Some Lebanese security officials consider Fatah Islam a radical Sunni Muslim group with ties to al-Qaida or at least al-Qaida-style militancy and doctrine. Others say it is a front for Syrian military intelligence aimed at destabilizing Lebanon — a claim Syria denies.