Lebanon warns Palestinian president that troops could intervene if clashes continue in Ain al-Hilweh camp
Lebanon’s caretaker prime minister called Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Thursday to demand an end to the volatile situation in the country’s largest Palestinian refugee camp, warning that Lebanese troops may intervene to stop the fighting that has left over a dozen people dead and wounded.
Najib Mikati’s call with Abbas came after days of sporadic clashes between Palestinian factions in the Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp near the southern port city of Sidon.
Mikati called the fighting a "flagrant violation of Lebanese sovereignty" and said it was unacceptable for the warring Palestinian groups to "terrorise the Lebanese, especially the people of the south who have embraced the Palestinians for many years," according to a statement released by his office.
His call came as cautious calm returned to the camp and surrounding area on Thursday after a night of renewed clashes.
Lebanon’s largest Palestinian refugee camp, which is home to about 50,000 people, has been rocked since Sunday by fierce fighting between Abbas' Fatah party and 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 dozens more, and displaced thousands.
In the city of 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 that 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 Ain al-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."
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 killed in Wednesday night’s clashes, bringing the total number killed in the battles to 13, with dozens more wounded.
The deceased person was identified as Yunus Mustafa Abu Shaqra, who was a member of Fatah’s scout office in Sidon.
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 centres in the camp, breaking a ceasefire agreement reached on 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.
The Lebanese army generally doesn't enter the Palestinian camps, which are controlled by a network of Palestinian factions, and hasn't taken an active role in the conflict in Ain al-Hilweh.
In 2007, the Lebanese army battled Islamist fighters 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 Ain al-Hilweh clashes, because - unlike in Nahr al-Bared - the combatants haven't directly targeted the army.