BEIRUT // A key figure in the Palestinian Authority's efforts to rein in control of Lebanon's unstable refugee camps was killed yesterday afternoon while leaving the funeral for a Fatah Party member in southern Lebanon. Kamal Medhat, the deputy leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation in Lebanon, was killed along with three bodyguards in a roadside bombing on the outskirts of the Mieh Mieh refugee camp outside the Lebanese city of Sidon yesterday afternoon after paying respects to the families of two men killed on Sunday in a family dispute. The bombing took place along a road linking Mieh Mieh to the notoriously dangerous Ain el Hilweh Camp as his convoy passed a security checkpoint guarded by members of a rival Palestinian faction. The top PLO official in Lebanon, Abbas Zaki, was also at the scene driving in a similar vehicle, leading Palestinian officials and analysts to wonder if he was the intended target of the attack. Palestinian officials in Lebanon and Ramallah immediately described the bombing as an assassination of a critical figure in the Palestinian movement. "President Abbas condemns the terrorist crime that targeted Major General Kamal Medhat," Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president said in a statement issued by his office. "He dedicated his life to serve his people and his cause." "The bomb was apparently hidden in a little shed on the side of the road and was detonated as Medhat's convoy drove by," a Lebanese army spokesman told the AFP news agency. Other accounts claimed the bomb was under the road itself and witnesses described a four-metre crater in the road, indicating the bomb was probably buried under the pavement. Lebanese officials remain uncertain if the precise location of the explosion is within the camp itself, in which case, they would have no authority to investigate. Mieh Mieh is home to only about 5,000 refugees making it one of the smallest camps in Lebanon. But it sits just a kilometre from Ain el-Hilweh's 70,000 residents, which has been the scene of frequent clashes between Palestinian factions as well as a hotbed of support for radical Islamic movements in Lebanon. Just over a year ago, Mr Abbas replaced much of the Palestinian leadership of the camps - which are home to an estimated 300,000 refugees - in an effort to minimise the number of independent armed factions operating in Lebanon. Under a 1969 Arab League agreement, Palestinian militants are allowed to control security and "resistance'" operations against Israel from the camps without interference from Lebanese authorities. The Lebanese army and other security forces are traditionally barred from conducting security operations inside the camps, which over the decades have taken on a reputation for lawlessness amid dozens of competing armed factions. Tensions with the Lebanese government over the right of camp residents to remain independently armed turned deadly after a radical Islamic group, Fatah al Islam, sparked a three-month siege of the northern Nahr al Bared camp.
Hundreds of militants, civilians and Lebanese soldiers were killed and tens of thousands of residents were displaced in the siege, which almost completely destroyed the camp. After the siege, according to multiple Palestinian officials, Mr Abbas reacted to pressure to disarm the camps by US and Lebanese officials, who feared further outbreaks of similar violence in other camps, and named Mr Zaki and Medhat to replace the PLO leadership in Lebanon. They have since pursued a deeply unpopular proposal to disarm all Palestinian factions in the camp, and have security provided by a 5,000-man special security unit loyal to the PLO, although this new policy remains unlikely to be implemented in the foreseeable future. The move sparked a power struggle with Gen Sultan Abu al Ain, the previous commander of the PLO, and Gen Munir al Maqdah, a key Fatah-aligned militant who nominally controls Ain el Hilweh. The previous leadership essentially refused to recognise the new authorities, splitting the leadership of Fatah and the PLO at a critical time. Besides the internal divisions, Fatah and the PLO have been engaged in a low-profile war of attrition with Islamic militants in Ain el Hilweh with links to both al Qa'eda and Fatah al Islam, further destabilising the area. Ain el Hilweh is home to more than 20 different armed groups, including several with close links to international jihadists in the Middle East. Despite this tension with Islamic factions, Osama Hamden, the Hamas representative for Lebanon, immediately condemned the attack to al Manar television, hailing Medhat as a unifying figure in the splintered Palestinian presence in Lebanon. Abu Ahmad, a militant in Ain el Hilweh with Islamic links, echoed this assessment. "He was one of the few good guys in the PLO movement," he said. "He had good relations with everyone, except some rivals in his own Fatah movement." Gen al Maqdah's office immediately put out a statement that said Medhat would be missed for his role in reducing tensions in the camp and that Gen al Maqdah had repeatedly warned Mr Abbas to include better protection for PLO officials inside the camps. Medhat had served as Fatah's top intelligence officer in Lebanon for almost 20 years, according to Palestinian authorities, after serving as the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's bodyguard during the Lebanon civil war. email@example.com