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In fight against militants, Lebanon bolstered by US, Gulf countries

The Lebanese army, carrying out a major offensive against Fatah al-Islam, has little combat experience and outdated equipment.

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Ill-equipped, overstretched, and largely untested, the Lebanese Army faces a formidable challenge as it presses ahead with an air, sea, and land assault against a band of several hundred militants besieged in this Palestinian refugee camp.

Amid the worst internal violence since Lebanon's 16-year civil war ended in 1990, the Lebanese Army on Friday launched a major offensive against the militants to crush them once and for all.

But the troops face an enemy whose leaders have sworn to fight to the death. The battle represents the first big test for the Lebanese Army since Syria withdrew its forces from Lebanon two years ago.

"The Lebanese Army was accused of doing nothing during last summer's war [between Hizbullah and Israel], and they can't afford to be accused of the same thing again. I think that's very much at the back of their mind," says Timur Goksel, a Beirut-based consultant on Middle East security affairs who was a longtime United Nations peacekeeper in south Lebanon.

Military diplomats in Beirut say the special forces are highly motivated and take training seriously. But unlike many of the militants, who have fought American troops in Iraq, the Lebanese have had little combat experience.

To help the Lebanese government crush the militants, the US – which has increased its military aid to Lebanon sevenfold in the last year – and some Gulf countries last week flew in planeloads of equipment, thought to include additional ammunition, night-vision goggles, and antitank missiles.

Prime minister calls for surrender

The fighting began two weeks ago when Fatah al-Islam militants attacked and overran Army positions surrounding the Nahr al-Bared camp. At least 10 soldiers were killed, some of them decapitated.

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