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The Lebanese army, carrying out a major offensive against Fatah al-Islam, has little combat experience and outdated equipment.

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He adds, however, that it will not be a quick job. "You only need to look at the configuration of the camp – with its alleys and connected houses – to see how difficult the mission is," he says. "They need to take their time, move slowly and smoothly to save lives."

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US military aid spikes sevenfold

The US is spearheading an international effort to upgrade and modernize the Lebanese Army. Last year, Washington allocated Lebanon $40 million in military aid, and this year the figure has soared to $280 million.

Although the Lebanese Army has a large amount of equipment for a small Army of some 45,000 (augmented in the past year by 15,000 reservists), most of it is obsolete or unusable. Furthermore, the Army's manpower is stretched to the limit with 20,000 troops deployed along the Lebanese-Israeli border after last summer's war, another 8,000 policing the porous border with Syria and thousands more maintaining security in Beirut.

The Lebanese Air Force has no operational fixed-wing aircraft and relies instead on Vietnam war-era UH-1 transport helicopters and several Gazelle attack helicopters recently donated from surplus stock in the United Arab Emirates' military. The French-built Gazelle helicopters were used to attack Fatah al-Islam positions on Saturday in the first air operations by the Lebanese military since 1983.

The Army's tanks date from the 1950s and are vulnerable to the rocket-propelled grenades fired by Fatah al-Islam militants. Most of the tanks at Nahr al-Bared are dug in behind earthen embankments and used as stationary artillery guns to pound positions held by the militants.

Although some equipment from international donors has been promised, including German-made Leopard tanks from Belgium, the most pressing need, analysts say, is for logistical and communications equipment.

"They don't even have proper radios. The officers are running this war by communicating with cellphones," Mr Goksel says.

Lebanese soldiers determined

Still, the spirit to fight appears strong. Soldiers manning frontline positions say they are determined to finish off Fatah al-Islam.

"We will kill them if they don't surrender. The fighting will be difficult, but we will win, be assured of that," says a special-forces captain.

The camp echoed Sunday with the near-constant rattle of heavy machine guns and rifles, punctuated every few seconds by thunderous blasts from exploding tank rounds. The plain concrete four-story buildings at the edge of the camp were pitted with holes from tanks shells and spattered by hundreds of bullet holes. Tiny flashes of light peppered walls of buildings marking the impact of explosive-tipped machine gun rounds fired by Lebanese troops. Thick coils of black smoke from burning buildings rose into the air. Some buildings were so badly damaged, they seemed to defy gravity by still standing. Tiny beads of orange light from rocket-propelled grenades floated lazily across the smoking rooftops before exploding in a dirty gray cloud of dust and smoke. One half-built five-story building was struck repeatedly with tank shells within a few seconds and collapsed in a huge cloud of dust and a deafening roar.

The attacking troops appeared to be slicing pockets of territory one at a time, forcing the Fatah al-Islam militants to retreat into the heart of the camp where the buildings are jammed against each other so tightly that sunlight rarely penetrates the tiny passageways in between.

But it promises to be an even tougher battle than the Army initially believed.

"We thought this might take two or three days, but I think it's going to be more like a week," says an Army officer in the Lebanese ministry of defense.