Clashes resume between factions in Lebanon's largest Palestinian refugee camp

SIDON, Lebanon (AP) — Clashes resumed in Lebanon’s largest Palestinian refugee camp overnight, with heavy gunfire and shelling wounding at least 20 people and prompting residents of the camp and the surrounding area to flee on Friday.

Earlier this summer, there were several days of street battles in the Ein el-Hilweh camp between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah movement and Islamist groups after Fatah accused the Islamists of gunning down one of their military generals on July 30. Those street battles left at least 13 dead and dozens wounded, and forced hundreds to flee from their homes.

An uneasy truce has been in place since Aug. 3, but clashes were widely expected to resume as the Islamist groups have not handed over the accused killers of the Fatah general, Mohammad “Abu Ashraf” al-Armoushi to the Lebanese judiciary, as demanded by a committee of Palestinian factions last month.

The committee announced on Tuesday that their joint security forces would launch raids in search of the accused killers.

Maher Shabaita, head of Fatah in the Sidon region, told The Associated Press that the Islamist groups had launched an attack Thursday night in an attempt to forestall plans by Palestinian forces to clear militants out of schools they had been occupying in the camp.

By late morning Friday, the fighting had at least temporarily subsided, but clashes intermittently flared up again. Hundreds of people displaced from their homes were sheltering in a nearby mosque and in the courtyard of the municipality building of the city of Sidon, which is adjacent to the camp.

U.N. Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Lebanon Imran Riza in a statement Friday urged the militants to call a truce and vacate the schools. The continued use of the schools by armed groups “amounts to gross violations” of international law, he said, “endangering children’s rights to a safe learning environment, and jeopardizing their future and the future of their community.”

Lebanon's state-run National News Agency reported that 20 people were wounded, including an elderly man, and transported to hospitals overnight. Shabaita said the wounded included three civil defense volunteers who came under shelling as they were working to extinguish fires.

Lebanon's General Security agency said that one of its officers suffered a head wound from a stray bullet that hit him outside the camp. Lebanese forces do not go into the camp under a standing agreement but provide security around it.

There were no immediate reports of deaths. The public Lebanese University announced it would close its branches in Sidon and postpone scheduled exams in light of the fighting.

Officials with the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, could not immediately give information on the number of casualties or displaced from the camp.

UNRWA appealed last week for $15.5 million to repair infrastructure damaged in the last round of clashes in the camp, provide alternative education locations for children whose schools were damaged or occupied by militants, and give cash assistance to people who have been displaced from their homes.