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A street in the Shatila refugee in Lebanon.
MITCHELL PROTHERO
A street in the Shatila refugee in Lebanon.

PLO factions locked in bitter power struggle

The conflict pits loyalists of Mahmoud Abbas against veteran commanders of the organisation in Lebanon's 13 refugee camps.

BEIRUT // An agreement between the Lebanese government and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation to disarm militants in Lebanon's volatile refugee camps has sparked a power struggle within the PLO that threatens stability in several flashpoints around the country, security officials said. The conflict pits loyalists to Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, against veteran PLO commanders in Lebanon's 13 refugee camps over a plan authorised by Mr Abbas, in conjunction with Lebanese and US antiterrorism officials, to disarm the 20-plus armed militant groups operating freely in the camps.

These groups would be replaced with a Lebanese government- and PLO-sanctioned force of 5,000 working closely with Lebanese security officials. Mr Abbas began to implement the policy by replacing the long-standing head of the PLO in Lebanon, Gen Sultan Abu al Ainin, with a personal representative, Abbas Zaki. Gen Ainin was considered a close confidant of Yasser Arafat before his death in 2004, as were many of the commanders being pushed out of their positions. According to sources inside the Palestinian community in Lebanon, the commanders are refusing to cede power to Ramallah quietly.

The status of the armed groups in the camps, where the Lebanese Army and police by convention do not enter, became a pressing issue last year after the al Qa'eda-inspired group, Fatah al Islam, occupied the Nahr el Bared refugee camp in northern Lebanon. In response, Lebanese army troops laid siege to the camp for more than three months at the cost of hundreds of lives and the destruction of the entire camp. But while the plans for a new Nahr el Bared contain provisions for the first Lebanese police station in a camp, the consolidation of power has sparked a second crisis in the Ain el Hilweh camp in southern Lebanon, long considered a safe haven for radical Islamic militants with ties to al Qa'eda.

Several Fatah and PLO commanders in the camps have rejected previous PLO peace initiatives with Israel and consider the development of a centralised security force to be a move against armed resistance to Israel. Home to several powerful and well-armed Islamist groups sprinkled among its estimated 70,000 residents, Ain el Hilweh has seen a low-key but bloody power struggle as Fatah officials loyal to Mr Abbas assassinate prominent Islamic leaders with ties to outside militant groups over the protests of the traditional Fatah and PLO commanders.

At least a dozen militants and Fatah members have been killed in repeated attacks over the past six months. The two PLO commanders at odds in Ain el Hilweh are theoretically part of the same organisation but Gen Munir al Maqtah, a famed militant considered the commander of the Fatah military wing, known as al Aqsa Martyr's Brigade, has been battling Abed al Hamid Issa, a Fatah commander also known as "Leno", for control of the Fatah security forces in the camp.

According to one Fatah militant, Abu Walid, the struggle increases each day as Lebanese authorities pressure Fatah to arrest and turn over militants associated with Fatah al Islam, and another al Qa'eda-linked group, Jund al Sham, hiding from Lebanese authorities. The arrests have pushed tensions between religious figures in the camp and the secular leadership into a near civil war. "Leno is backed by Abbas Zaki and the problem with Munir is that Leno been raiding apartments, and arresting militants in the camp, and then handing them to the Lebanese authorities," Mr Walid said. "Munir is against handing them to the Lebanese authorities. Munir wants to keep the problems in the camp, and because he is close to the Islamic movements and he has been sympathising with them."

Mr Walid described the conflict as originating with the Palestinian leadership over the future of the movement and armed resistance, as Mr Abbas pursues a peace deal with Israel and the Lebanese authorities tyre of Palestinian militants fomenting violence inside Lebanon. Ali, a 29-year old construction worker in the camp who did not want to be further identified, described the inter-Fatah rivalry as becoming potentially violent as the group argues over how to handle the presence of militant Islamists who have taken refuge in the camp since the siege in Nahr el Bared.

"The changes that some men from Fatah suddenly started working for their own agenda, one different than Munir's," he said. "This group lately started enforcing more power in security. They began attacking, and harassing the Islamists in the camp like Jund al Sham, and Usbat al Ansar, even the foreign ones, Saudi, and Yemeni Islamists. I don't know to which group the foreigners belong, but I know they are here in the camp since the events of Nahr el Bared."

Another militant in the camp said the foreign fighters can only be seen at night, when the Islamic groups take control of the Tamir neighbourhood of the camp to protect against Lebanese army incursions. Gen Maqda refused comment, as did Mr Zaki and Leno, but Gen Maqda is known for refusing to support any PLO or Fatah peace initiatives with Israel that do not clearly address the right of return for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. He opposed the Oslo peace process, briefly left the PLO in the 1990s over tactics and was implicated in the bombing plot in Amman in 2000 when al Qa'eda targeted western hotels.

In the past, his close relationship with the Islamic groups in Ain el Hilweh, who previously were linked to the late Abu Musab Zarqawi and al Qa'eda in Iraq, has kept the camp's gaggle of Islamic militants relatively peaceful and numerous analysts and officials have repeatedly expressed concern that removing him from authority could spark a broader crisis similar to Nahr el Bared. Tuesday night, Lebanese military and intelligence officials told a gathering of the camp's elders and tribal leaders that they must help remove the militant threat from the camp, including arresting and turning over Abu Mohammed Awad, the new commander of Fatah al Islam, who is believed to be hiding inside.

"A number of these groups are like terrorists who have hijacked a plane with 70,000 hostages and threaten to kill them all by crashing them into the unknown," Col Abbas Ibrahim told the elders. mprothero@thenational.ae

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