BEIRUT (Reuters) - Six Lebanese soldiers were killed as the army clashed with Islamist gunmen in northern Lebanon for a second day on Saturday, using helicopters to fire rockets in the first such air attack since the war in neighboring Syria began.
Soldiers exchanged heavy fire with the gunmen - whose exact affiliation was unclear - in the city of Tripoli in the morning and moved in on their positions in the afternoon, security sources said.
Three soldiers were wounded in a nearby incident when gunmen opened fire on an army vehicle near the northern village of Bahneen, the sources said. One soldier later died from his wounds.
An officer was killed in another attack near the town of al-Minya, also in the north, security sources said. The military used two helicopters to fire two rockets at militants in the area after the attack, security sources said.
A third soldier died from wounds sustained in fighting on Friday. At least four militants and two civilians were also killed, and about 14 soldiers wounded, the sources said.
Gunmen also took one soldier captive in Tripoli as he was riding in a taxi, security sources said.
Tripoli has seen some of the worst spillover from the 3-1/2-year-old war in neighboring Syria, whose border is only about 30 km (20 miles) north up the coast from the ancient port city. Gun battles and bombings linked to the conflict have regularly broken out.
In statements published by the National News Agency, the army leadership said: “The pursuit of terrorist gunmen in Tripoli is continuing and will not be pulled back until after the terrorists are eliminated.”
Tripoli has long been a stronghold for hardline Sunni Islamists, many of whom accuse Lebanon’s army of working with Shi’ite movement Hezbollah, which has sent fighters to aid Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a member of the Shi’ite-derived Alawite minority, against majority Sunni rebels.
Writing by Alexander Dziadosz; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky