Lebanon: Death toll from refugee camp fight rises to 7

Fatah Movement forces are poised to take over territory controlled by an extremist faction in Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp Monday after three days of running gun battles that left seven dead and more than 40 wounded, security sources said. The clashes began Friday when a group with links to Al-Qaeda led by notorious fugitive Bilal Badr group opened fire on the newly deployed joint Palestinian forces in the south Lebanon camp.

Badr Sunday refused to meet a six-hour deadline to hand himself in to camp authorities. The 7 p.m. time limit came after an emergency meeting by secular and Islamic Palestinian factions at a Fatah Movement headquarters in Sidon.

Security sources said that Badr looked set to flee his powerbase in the Al-Tiri area of the camp to avoid capture before the Palestinian force move in within hours. He is wanted by Lebanese authorities on numerous arrest warrants.

However, the sources did not rule out the possibility that the forces would have to storm the neighborhood and escalate fighting that has already displaced dozens of civilians.

The state-run National News Agency reported Sunday evening that units of the Army had taken up combat positions around the Sidon camp, indicating a possible involvement of security forces in the fighting.

The assault on Al-Tiri proved more difficult than expected as Badr’s group of around 40 members backed by hundreds from other extremist groups in the area kept up a steady rate of fire through the weekend to repel the advances of Fatah and joint force units.

Although Fatah received promises of help and support from several groups, including the deployment of larger machine guns and mortars, sources said the parties still hadn’t fully committed to the fray. Nevertheless, the sources stressed that the spirit of Fatah Movement fighters was high.

The fighting broke out Friday when Badr, who objected to the deployment of the new unit backed by Fatah fighters, opened fire on the joint Palestinian force. This led Fatah to commit militarily to driving Badr from the Al-Tiri neighborhood of Ain al-Hilweh. The fighting spilled out from the camp, affecting Sidon and its neighboring areas.

Health Minister Ghassan Hasbani Saturday issued a statement demanding Sidon Governmental Hospital evacuate the facility due to its proximity to the hostilities.

However, medical teams stayed behind to treat any urgent cases that came in. “The hospital and its staff will continue their tasks and will treat all admitted patients,” Dr. Ahmad al-Samadi, the hospital’s director, told The Daily Star.

Four rockets fell on the camp’s outskirts Sunday with damage inflicted to one of the houses in the Ain al-Hilweh-adjacent Fowwar area. Bullets also penetrated several shops and cars in Sidon, with sniper fire forcing authorities to close the nearby Hasbi road to traffic.

The wounded included a 4-year-old boy who was hit by sniper fire Sunday outside the confines of the camp at Sidon’s serail roundabout.

Units from the Lebanese Army Commando Regiment deployed across Sidon to patrol the city’s streets. This was accompanied by strict security measures at the camp’s entrances.

Before the faction’s meeting, the fighting in the areas of Jabal al-Halb, Al-Tiri and the vegetable market remained heavy with mortar and RPG rounds as well as sniper fire and the rattle of assault weapons.

While fighting subsided during the 6-hour pause for Badr to hand himself in, they reignited as the deadline drew closer. However, a short-lived but cautious calm descended in the minutes after 7 p.m. while forces from both sides waited to see the next steps.

The Islamic faction’s proposal for Badr to leave, reached in coordination with Hamas Movement, was communicated to Badr through several constituents of Shabab al-Muslim. These include prominent members of extremist groups, including Fatah al-Islam’s Osama al-Shehabi and Jund al-Sham’s Haitham al-Shaabi.

Sources explained that although the fighting to dislodge Badr was the first such major action to clear extremists from the camp, it won’t be the last given that there are many others similar to Badr who major factions would like to drive out.

Minister of State for Human Rights Ayman Choucair, representing Education Minister Marwan Hamadeh, issued a decision Sunday night to close public and private schools in Sidon and Haret Saida Monday due to the ongoing situation.

The developments in Ain al-Hilweh promoted Speaker Nabih Berri Sunday to warn that inter-Palestinian clashes would harm the Palestinian cause and only benefit Israel.

“The internal fighting and ongoing strife in Ain al-Hilweh will only benefit Israel,” Berri was quoted as saying Sunday by the NNA.

Berri called upon Palestinian leaders and refugees to “stop attempts” to drag Palestinians into inter communal conflicts.

Sidon MP Bahia Hariri Saturday also expressed solidarity with Palestinians over the security chaos in Ain al-Hilweh.

The lawmaker stressed the urgent need to “follow up on the decision made by the Palestinian and Islamist factions in Ain al-Hilweh to fortify stability and security at the camp and in Sidon.”

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