At least five people have been killed and seven others wounded in clashes in Lebanon’s largest Palestinian refugee camp near the southern port city of Sidon, Palestinian officials said.
The Palestinian faction Fatah in a statement on Sunday confirmed the death of commander Ashraf al-Armouchi and four of his “comrades” during a “heinous operation”.
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The statement denounced an “abominable and cowardly crime” aimed at undermining the “security and stability” of the Palestinian camps in Lebanon.
Palestinian officials, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with regulations, said the fighting broke out in Ein el-Hilweh camp after an unknown gunman tried to assassinate armed group member Mahmoud Khalil, killing a companion of his instead, The Associated Press news agency reported.
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) put the death toll at six, and Lebanon’s state-run National News Agency said two children were among those wounded.
The Lebanese army said in a statement that a mortar shell hit a military barracks outside the camp and wounded one soldier, whose condition is stable.
Families flee violence
Violence in Ein el-Hilweh is not uncommon.
The UN says about 55,000 people live in the camp, which was established in 1948 to house Palestinians displaced by Israeli forces during what Palestinians call the Nakba, or catastrophe.
On Sunday, factions clashed with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers and lobbed hand grenades in the camp as ambulances zoomed through its narrow streets to take the wounded to the hospital.
The fighting stopped for several hours in the morning, though state media said there was still sporadic sniper fire. But fighting erupted again after the killing of the Palestinian general and his escorts.
Some residents in Sidon neighbourhoods near the camp fled their homes as stray bullets hit buildings and shattered windows and storefronts. The public Sidon General Hospital evacuated its staff and patients.
UNRWA said two of its schools that serve some 2,000 students were damaged in the fighting. It said it suspended all its operations in Ein el-Hilweh.
Lebanon’s caretaker prime minister, Najib Mikati, condemned the clashes and called their timing “suspicious in the current regional and international context”.
He criticised “repeated attempts to use Lebanon” as a battleground for the settling of outside scores “at the expense of Lebanon and the Lebanese”.
“We call on the Palestinian leadership to cooperate with the army to control the security situation and hand over those meddling with security to the Lebanese authorities,” Mikati said in his statement.
A ceasefire was agreed from 6:00 pm (15:00 GMT) during a meeting of Palestinian factions including Fatah, also attended by members of the Lebanese Amal and Hezbollah movements, a joint statement said.
Palestinian factions in the camp for years have cracked down on armed groups and fugitives seeking shelter in the camp’s overcrowded neighbourhoods.
By long-standing convention, the Lebanese army does not enter Palestinian refugee camps in the country, leaving the factions themselves to handle security.
In 2017, Palestinian factions engaged in almost a week of fierce clashes with an armed group affiliated with ISIS (ISIL).
More than 450,000 Palestinians in Lebanon are registered with UNRWA.
Most live in one of the 12 official refugee camps, often in squalid conditions, and face a variety of legal restrictions, including on employment.