Lebanon warns Palestinian president that troops may intervene if clashes continue in refugee camp

SIDON, Lebanon (AP) — The caretaker Lebanese prime minister called the Palestinian president on Thursday to demand an end to the volatile situation in Lebanon’s largest Palestinian refugee camp, warning that the army may have to intervene to stop the dayslong fighting that has left dozens dead and wounded.

The deadly clashes between Palestinian factions in the Ein el-Hilweh refugee camp near the southern port city of Sidon have been going on since Sunday, though a tentative calm returned to the camp and surrounding area on Thursday, after a night of renewed clashes.

In his telephone call with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati called the fighting a “flagrant violation of Lebanese sovereignty. Mikati also said it was unacceptable for the warring Palestinian groups to “terrorize the Lebanese, especially the people of the south who have embraced the Palestinians for many years,” according to a statement released by his office.

The latest fighting in Ein el-Hilweh, which is home to about 50,000 people, has pitted Abbas’ Fatah party against Islamist groups Jund al Sham and Shabab al Muslim. Fatah has accused the Islamists of gunning down a Fatah military general, Abu Ashraf al Armoushi, in the camp on Sunday.

The fighting has so far killed more than a dozen people, wounded many more and displaced thousands.

In Sidon, outside the camp’s borders, around 100 camp residents who had fled the clashes were sheltering in a nearby mosque on Thursday. Sheikh Ahmad Nader said around 2,000 people had sheltered at the mosque since the beginning of the clashes.

“We are tired of all of this,” said Mohamed Sabakh, an Ein el-Hilweh resident staying in the mosque with his family. “We have children.”

Even outside the camp, Sabakh said, they feel trapped by the fighting. “Look around you, all the stores are closed. People are locked down in their houses. There is nowhere to get bread even, all the roads are closed.”

Dorothee Klaus, director of the U.N. refugee agency for Palestinian refugees, or UNRWA, in Lebanon said in a statement Thursday that 600 people displaced from the camp are staying in two of the agency’s schools, in Sidon and in Mieh Mieh, another nearby camp.

“We have not been able to enter the camp and deliver much needed assistance,” she said, noting that some 360 of UNRWA’s staff live in the camp, where some were trapped and one was injured in the clashes.

Dr. Riad Abu al-Einein, head of Al Hamshari Hospital near the camp, told The Associated Press that the hospital had received the body of a person who was killed in clashes on Wednesday night, bringing the total number killed in the battles to 13.

If the situation continues, he said, “it will affect not only the families in the camp but all of the people in Sidon, especially as there were several rocket-propelled grenades and gunshots hit residential areas in the city.”

Maher Shabaita, head of Fatah in the Sidon region, confirmed that one of the group’s members was killed in Wednesday night’s clashes.

He said Fatah fighters had defended themselves after the Islamist groups attacked one of Fatah’s centers in the camp, breaking a cease-fire agreement reached Monday, in what he described as part of a “project to destroy the camp and transform the camp into a camp of militants, possibly a camp of terrorists.”

Palestinian factions in the camp have formed an investigative committee to determine who was responsible for Armoushi’s killing and hand them over to the Lebanese judiciary for trial, he said.

Lebanese soldiers generally do not enter the Palestinian camps, which are controlled by a network of Palestinian factions, and have stayed out of the latest conflict in Ein el-Hilweh. In 2007, the Lebanese army battled Islamist extremists in another Palestinian camp, Nahr al-Bared, in north Lebanon, razing most of the camp in the process.

Elias Farhat, a retired Lebanese army general who is now a researcher in military affairs, said it was unlikely that the army would intervene in the Ein el-Hilweh because — unlike in Nahr al-Bared — the combatants have not directly targeted the army.


Sewell reported from Beirut. Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report.

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