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French Version

Meeting seeks solution at Ain al-Hilweh

Tensions remained high in and around the Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp on Monday, one day after four died during battles between the Lebanese Army soldiers and Jund al-Sham militants.

Two soldiers and two militants were killed in the clashes that began Sunday night and continued into the early hours on Monday, as the Islamic militants of Jund al-Sham exchanged fire with soldiers posted along the edges of the camp. Reports said the militants had fired rocket-propelled grenades.

Three soldiers and two civilians were wounded during the intermittent clashes at Ain al-Hilweh, which the largest of the 12 refugee camps in Lebanon with at least 50,000 residents.

The army beefed up its presence near the camp - for the second time within the past month - and Palestinian refugees were seen fleeing from their homes because of the deadly clashes. Some 15,000 Palestinians have been displaced from the refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared in North Lebanon, and many feared that violence on a similar scale might erupt in Ain al-Hilweh.

The camp was without electricity throughout the day on Monday, and the blackout continued in the evening.

Jund al-Sham (Soldiers of Damascus) counts some 50 members, many of them fugitives from Lebanese justice.

While the group does not appear to have a public leader, its ideologies are close to that of Fatah al-Islam, as both groups revere Osama bin Laden.

Both groups are known in their respective camps as Sunni extremists, with reports that they were isolated from the rest of the camps because of their strict dogma.

There are other close links between the groups, as Fatah al-Islam number two Abu Hureira, whose real name is Shehab al-Qaddour, lived in Ain al-Hilweh for 13 years and married a Palestinian woman from the al-Shaabei family there.

"I did not order them to pick up their arms - they attacked the army on their own initiative," Abu Hureira told The Daily Star on Monday in a telephone interview.

Sources from within the camp said Abu Hureira's brother-in-law, Haytham al-Shaabei, is a member of Jund al-Sham and was involved in the clashes on Sunday night.

Abu Hureira confirmed that senior Fatah al-Islam leader Naim Deeb Ghali, also known as Abu Riad and killed by the army on Sunday, was a Palestinian from Ain al-Hilweh. Abu Hureira also said news of Ghali's death sparked anger among his relatives and supporters in Ain al-Hilweh. "We have about 500 people that support us in Ain al-Hilweh," said Abu Hureira.

Palestinian factions, which have exclusive control over security in Ain al-Hilweh and all camps in Lebanon under an arrangement that dates back to 1969, met on Monday with several Lebanese officials regarding the latest clashes.

Palestinian sources within Ain al-Hilweh said one of the solutions being discussed is formation of a "joint" security force made up of members from each of the armed groups within the camp to act as "buffer" between the army and militants like Jund al-Sham.

The sources said the eastern and northern parts of the camp would be monitored by Fatah, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Saaqa group. The western and southern parts would be under the watch of Al-Kefah and other groups.

"All the Palestinian organizations, including the Islamists, were able to reach an agreement and united their efforts to prevent further violent escalations from spreading to other Palestinian camps," said Sidon MP Bahia Hariri.

The army beefed up its presence in Sidon, putting up new checkpoints and positioning armored vehicles around Ain al-Hilweh, while the city's schools were closed, many shops remained shut and the streets were nearly deserted.

In a related development, tensions were running high in the Rashidiyeh and Bourj al-Shemali camps near the Southern port city of Tyre, the official National News Agency (NNA) reported Monday.

The NNA report said that militants from the mainstream Fatah movement and other allied factions had been maintaining an all-night watch over the two camps.

Beirut 05-06-2007
The Daily Star

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