x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Politics blunt hunt in refugee camp for fugitive

Palestinian factions debate the political fallout of arresting the militant thought to be hiding inside the Ain el Hilweh refugee camp.

BEIRUT // A manhunt for the alleged leader of a radical militant group accused of masterminding a series of bombings and assassinations has stalled as various Palestinian factions debate the political fallout of arresting the militant thought to be hiding inside the Ain el Hilweh refugee camp. The purported emir of Fatah al Islam, Abu Mohammed Awad, and several lieutenants are the subject of near-daily rumours in the Lebanese press and among security officials searching for them, with the last credible reports putting him inside the camp more than a week ago. Since that report, Palestinian officials have tepidly claimed that Mr Awad and his followers might have fled to Syria, where they are wanted in a car bombing in Damascus in September that killed at least 17 people, or even Iraq, where many members of the group have fought the US-led occupation.

Lebanese authorities also accuse the group of mounting a bombing and assassination campaign against politicians and security officials after the Lebanese army's siege of its headquarters last year, which destroyed the Nahr el Bared refugee camp, killing hundreds and displacing tens of thousands of civilians. Many of the top leaders of the group, which has ideological ties to al Qa'eda, are thought to have escaped the siege.

But Lebanese security and military officials continue to suspect that Mr Awad remains inside Ain el Hilweh, a densely packed urban camp with more than 50,000 residents and a long history of Islamic militancy. Lebanese and Palestinian security officials also confirm claims by members of the Islamic community in the camp that Mr Awad had taken shelter with the remnants of an al Qa'eda-inspired group known as Jund al Sham, which has been engaged in a low-grade war with the Fatah security establishment and Lebanese army for years.

But the officials concede they no longer know his exact location, with Palestinian officials claiming the suspects have fled and Lebanese authorities convinced they remain in the camp. Abu Mohammed, a security official with Fatah, based in the Nahr al Bared camp, where Fatah al Islam first appeared, says that his colleagues in Ain el Hilweh cannot find Mr Awad and have begun to fear that Sunni extremism is being used as an excuse to disarm and control the notoriously lawless Palestinian camps, which are home to more than 250,000 refugees and their descendants.

"Everyone is worried about what's happening in Ain el Hilweh. Our sources and contacts down there now tell us that he is not in camp," he said. "But now we start feeling that every camp in Lebanon is being threatened and we feel it's an external plan to disarm the Palestinian camps. We are worried that what Nahr al Bared experienced, every camp will have a taste of." A deputy to the current commander of the PLO's military wing in Lebanon, Brig Gen Munir al Maqdah, said an agreement was reached with Esbat al Ansar, another militant group once linked to Abu Musab Zarqawi and al Qa'eda, to patrol the camp in search of Mr Awad, but that arguments about jurisdiction along the camp's nebulous borders have delayed the search.

"The camp is calm at the moment and we just formed a joint unit made out off all the factions in the camp including the Islamic ones," said Abed al Zoub, Brig Gen Maqdah's deputy. "The unit is searching for Awad day and night, and we promise in the next couple of days we will have solid news about him. We should have him in our hands, or if not then we know he ran away and we will find where he is hiding. I guarantee if he is in the camp we will hunt him down. The only problem we are facing now is he could be in the Tamir area on the outskirts of the camp, [where] we don't have any authority."

One Palestinian intellectual based in the camp disputed this claim that the hunt is being effectively pursued. Asking that his name not be used while criticising almost every faction in the violent camp, the expert said internal power struggles between Fatah and PLO members over control of the camp's security have distracted the effort and led to vapid posturing that has done little good. "The camp and the people in charge of it want to wash their hands clean of the Awad story," he said. "They feel relaxed, comfortable whenever someone says Awad ran away, this way they feel less responsible. [But] people in the camp don't buy the story that he ran away to Iraq, since the Lebanese-Syrian borders are blocked because of security crackdown and he is convicted and wanted in Syria for the Damascus bombing. The reason why the security groups in the camp have been quiet about Awad's destiny is because they have no information about his whereabouts, and they have not achieved anything positive in their mission."

mprothero@thenational.ae