Relief workers on Saturday accused the Lebanese army of using “excessive force” to disperse a protest in which dozens of displaced refugees in northern Lebanon were killed or wounded.“The protesters were more than 10 metres away from the [army] checkpoint and there was gunfire,” said Caoimhe Butterly, an Irish member of the Nahr Bared Relief Campaign, a non-governmental organisation.
Mahmoud Halimi, the NGO’s coordinator, called for an independent probe into Friday’s violence as Palestinian refugees demanded to return to the Nahr Bared camp where troops have been battling Islamic gunmen since May 20.
“The demonstration was going peacefully and unarmed. The soldiers fired first in the air. We sat down to de-escalate, but after that there was gunfire at the demonstrators,” he said.
“Men, women and children were victims of an excessive use of force. We ask for an independent investigation,” Butterly told reporters in Beddawi, a Palestinian camp near Nahr Bared and close to the scene of the violence.
Medics at a Palestinian-run hospital said two men were killed and about 40 people wounded as the protest by hundreds of refugees who fled Nahr Bared came under fire from Lebanese soldiers at a checkpoint outside Beddawi.
A third Palestinian, a woman, was also taken to hospital but died of natural causes unrelated to the demonstration, they explained.
Mohammad Jundi, in his 50s, was buried in Beddawi on Saturday. Mourners said another hospital was ordered not to release the body of the second man killed, 26-year-old student Hussam Mezyan, while an investigation was under way.
A wounded Palestinian, Salim Shamaa, said, “I got shot because I was raising my hand to talk to the people”, while 22-year-old Mohammad, who declined to give a family name, said he was knifed by Lebanese counterdemonstrators.
The Lebanese army insisted its troops had taken all necessary measures to avoid casualties among the protesters.
“They were trying to force their way through the checkpoint, carrying metal objects and sticks, ignoring warning shots in the air,” an army spokesman told AFP. “The whole incident is not clear yet.”
The military said the protesters marched out of the overcrowded Beddawi camp and tried to block the main highway with tyres to press their demand to return.
Abbas Zaki, the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s (PLO) representative to Lebanon, accused “anarchic elements of provoking these incidents by infiltrating a peaceful demonstration”.
He refused to blame the army. “We will give the army the time and chance to complete their mission,” said Zaki.
But the Damascus-based Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command held the Lebanese government responsible for the killings and called for an Arab investigation.
Less than 1,000 civilians of Nahr Bared’s normal population of about 31,000 have stayed put, with the rest fleeing from a showdown between the army and Islamists, mostly to take shelter in Lebanon’s other Palestinian camps.
The gunmen of “Fateh Islam are criminals and need to be wiped out. They are causing division between us and the Lebanese”, Mustapha Ibrahim, 55, another resident of Nahr Bared, said ahead of the demonstration.
Soldiers and fighters inside the camp traded sporadic gunfire on Saturday, a correspondent at the scene said, in the latest episode of the six-week battle that has reduced much of the Palestinian camp and refugees’ homes to rubble.
The army said at least three soldiers were wounded, as it also attacked Fateh Islam positions with tank and artillery shells.
According to a count compiled from official figures, the fighting has cost at least 169 lives, including 84 soldiers, in and around Nahr Bared. The toll does not include the corpses of several fighters abandoned in the camp.