x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Sectarian clashes in Lebanon raise fears

At least one person is reported killed and several wounded in a series of clashes between Islamist groups and Fatah authorities in Lebanon's largest Palestinian refugee camp.

BEIRUT // At least one person was reported killed and several wounded in a series of clashes between Islamist groups and Fatah authorities in Lebanon's largest Palestinian refugee camp late Monday. Panicked residents of the surrounding city of Sidon were sent scrambling for cover as stray bullets and rocket-propelled grenades slammed into residential areas around the camp. The fighting erupted on Monday evening after a member of an Islamist faction shot and gravely wounded an official with the Fatah movement at the main entrance of the camp. The incident quickly escalated into the worst fighting to plague Ain el Hilweh, home to at least 50,000 people, in years, according to witnesses and officials reached by phone.

The Lebanese military, although unable to enter the camp itself, tightly controls access to the main gates and is barring foreign journalists from entering. Shortly after dark, an Islamist fighter with ties to various militant organisations was walking past the main checkpoint to enter the camp and exchanged first harsh words and then bullets with Mohammed Tammam, a security official with a Fatah faction loyal to the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah.

Mr Tammam was shot during the encounter, as was a nearby shopkeeper caught in the ensuing gun battle. "I do not know if [Mr Tammam] will survive," Abu Hani, an official with Fatah in the camp, said. Other residents of the camp said Mr Tammam had died and that the faction was withholding releasing the news to allow a ceasefire brokered by a local cleric to take hold. His exact status, however, could not be confirmed and local hospitals were refusing to divulge any information on either his presence or condition.

After the initial hour-long gun battle, which took place in the northern section of the camp controlled by a faction of Fatah led by Abed al Hamid Issa, also known as "Leeno", announcements from the southern edge of the camp controlled by an Islamist faction, Usbat al Ansar, were broadcast over mosque loudspeakers. They called for jihad against the secular Fatah authorities, who only nominal control the unruly camp.

The yet unnamed militant who shot Mr Tammam is said, by a number of political, religious and security sources in the camp, to belong to a loosely organised group of Islamist fighters influenced by al Qa'eda. The camp's large Islamist population is known to have sent dozens of militants to fight in Iraq. According to the same witnesses, after the announcements began from the mosques, the fight turned into one of the biggest battles in years inside the camp.

Usbat al Ansar, the largest and best-equipped Islamist faction in the camp, with its own strong ties to international jihadi movements, entered the fray, breaking a nearly year-long truce with the camp's authorities. The entire camp was transformed into a battleground that sent bullets and rocket-propelled grenades flying into neighbouring Sidon, where residents, despite being used to a fair amount of unrest in the camp, began to flee for safer areas, according to multiple witnesses.

"It was at least four hours long," said Abu Moustafa, a local resident. The combatants "were trying to scare each other with RPGs, but they would just sail over the camp and into the city. And bullets were hitting the [Beirut-Sidon] motorway so people couldn't safely leave". Islamist militants commonly accuse Mr Issa of pursuing a campaign of assassination and intimidation on behalf of both the Lebanese and Palestinian governments that is intended to break the grip of religious factions on parts of the camp.

Lebanese officials are concerned that the strong presence of fighters with links to international jihadi movements could turn the camp into a base for attacks around Lebanon, while Fatah authorities in Ramallah fear an Islamist takeover of the camp could turn it into situation similar to the Gaza Strip, further undermining their own diminishing authority over Lebanon's 250,000 Palestinian refugees.

The truce brokered by Sheikh Jamal Khattab, the imam at al Noor mosque in the southern part of the camp, who has close ties to the camp's militants, held yesterday although there were widespread concerns that violence could erupt at any time. "This incident will be recalled or politically manipulated in the future," Abu Hani said. The struggle for control of one of Lebanon's most volatile areas appears to continue.

@Email:mprothero@thenational.ae