Palestinian force deploys in Lebanon’s refugee camp

AIN AL HILWEH CAMP (AP) — A Palestinian security force fanned out in two neighbourhoods of this refugee camp in southern Lebanon Wednesday to prevent a renewal of clashes between Islamists and Lebanese troops that have so far claimed three lives.

Some 40 men, carrying automatic rifles, from various Palestinian factions in the camp deployed in Taamir and Taware neighbourhoods that were the scene of clashes Sunday and Monday between Jund Al Sham Islamist gunmen and Lebanese troops ringing the country’s largest refugee camp.

The calm that followed Sunday’s clashes, in which two soldiers and a gunman were killed, continued to hold Wednesday as the combined force of secular and Islamic extremist, took up positions in the neighbourhoods.

Loudspeakers on the minarets of mosques urged people to reopen stores and resume normal life in the camp. Some of the several thousand refugees who had fled the fighting to nearby areas of Sidon, the provincial capital of southern Lebanon, began returning Wednesday.

The army reopened its checkpoints around the camp for traffic. But in northern Lebanon, where the army is fighting Fateh Islam men barricaded in the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr Bared, sporadic exchanges continued Wednesday.

Concerns are rising that the fighting in the north, which began May 20 and intensified with an army offensive since Friday, could spread to more of Lebanon’s 12 Palestinian camps, embroiled in similar factional rivalries that plague the Gaza Strip. Under a nearly 40-year-old arrangement granting Palestinians authority to rule themselves, Lebanese troops do not enter Palestinian refugee camps — crowded towns with schools, clinics and markets that have also harboured gunmen and outlaws. Four bombs have exploded in residential and commercial neighbourhoods in the Beirut area since the fighting began, killing one person and wounded more than 40 people. A bomb was found and dismantled Wednesday on a public beach in the southern port city of Tyre. The trouble at Ain Hilweh, with 65,000 residents, erupted when Jund Al Sham — sympathetic to Fateh Islam — clashed with Lebanese soldiers Sunday night and Monday morning.

At Nahr Bared, more Fateh Islam fighters reportedly surrendered to a major Palestinian faction. Maj. Gen. Khaled Aref, a senior commander of the major Fateh group of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ein Hilweh, said Wednesday on Lebanese Broadcasting Corp. television that a total of about 20 Fateh Islam fighters have surrendered to his group in the southern part of besieged Nahr Bared.

The surrenders were the first time a major Palestinian group responded to calls by Lebanese authorities to campaign against Fateh Islam.

It coincided with Abbas’ renewed denunciation of the group, whose few hundred members embrace Al Qaeda style and doctrine and are suspected of having links to Osama Ben Laden’s network.

Speaking from his base at the Ain Hilweh Camp, Aref told the Associated Press on Tuesday that seven gunmen had dropped their weapons and surrendered. He added that Fateh was trying to persuade Palestinians at Nahr Bared who sided with the gunmen to abandon the fight because the battle is wrecking their homes.

Major Palestinian factions have been trying to mediate an end to the battle. The government wants the Islamists to surrender, but Fateh Islam leaders have vowed to fight to death. Despite their tacit backing for the army’s offensive at Nahr Bared, mainstream Palestinian groups are wary of military involvement because of their own rivalries and the fear that direct intervention could spread the violence to other Palestinian camps. More than 100 people have been reported killed in the fighting, the worst internal violence since the end of Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war.

Among the dead were 45 soldiers, including 10 killed since the military launched its offensive Friday at Nahr Bared and two who died in the clashes at Ein Hilweh. About 60 Fateh Islam members were believed killed.

At least 20 civilians have been reported dead at Nahr Bared, but any recent civilian casualties were unknown. 

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