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Palestinian general among 11 killed during sectarian violence in Lebanon camp

SIDON, Lebanon (AP) — Thousands of mourners gathered in south Lebanon on Monday for the funeral of a Palestinian military general with the Fatah group, whose killing in a refugee camp in Lebanon fueled fierce sectarian street battles that have killed at least 11 people.

Three days of clashes between Palestinian factions at the Ein el-Hilweh refugee camp have pitted members of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah party against Islamist groups accused of gunning down the general, Abu Ashraf al Armoushi, on Sunday.

A Lebanese lawmaker announced a cease-fire agreement late Monday, which appeared to calm the situation, but sporadic gunfire continued afterward. Earlier efforts to broker a cease-fire had failed to stop the shooting and shelling through the narrow streets of the Ein el-Hilweh camp in southern Lebanon.

Armoushi’s funeral was held in another refugee community, the al-Rashidieh camp, where he had lived.

“This heinous crime doesn’t benefit anyone but the enemy, and that is the Zionists, because they are the primary and only beneficiary,” said Jalal Abuchehab, a Fatah official at al-Rashidieh camp, during Armoushi’s funeral.

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The violence began Saturday when an unknown gunman tried to kill Palestinian militant Mahmoud Khalil but instead fatally shot his companion. Full-blown clashes erupted Sunday when Islamic militants shot and killed Armoushi and three escorts as they were walking through a parking lot, according to a Palestinian official. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.

On Monday afternoon, after a meeting between Lebanese officials and security forces and Palestinian factions, Lebanese lawmaker Osama Saad, who represents the Sidon area where the camp is located, announced a new ceasefire agreement.

Saad earlier told The Associated Press that officials are “making extraordinary efforts to find serious, effective, lasting and stable solutions to the situation inside the camp.”

Smoke rises during a clashes that erupted between members of the Palestinian Fatah group and Islamist militants in the Palestinian refugee camp of Ein el-Hilweh near the southern port city of Sidon, Lebanon, July 30, 2023. (Mohammad Zaatari/AP)

On the ground, the intensity of the fighting decreased following the announcement, but sporadic shooting continued.

The UN agency for the Palestinians, UNRWA, said 11 people had been killed and another 40 injured.

A Lebanese army spokesperson confirmed Monday that at least nine people were killed at Ein el-Hilweh camp, while some reports gave higher figures. Two soldiers stationed outside the camp were lightly wounded, Col. Fadi Abou Eid said.

Officials said five Fatah members and one Islamist militant had been killed in the initial violence over the weekend.

There was no immediate word on the identities of the other fatalities.

The Lebanese army mans a checkpoint outside and typically does not enter the camp, which is under the control of the Palestinian factions. Some Lebanese officials have called for the army to take control of the camps in the wake of the clashes.

Militants fire into the air during the funeral of two Fatah commanders at a Palestinian refugee camp in the southern Lebanese port city of Tyre on July 31, 2023. (Mahmoud Zayyat/AFP)

Lawmaker Samy Gemayel, head of the Kataeb party, which during the Lebanese civil war allied with Israel against the Palestinian Liberation Organization, met with US Ambassador to Lebanon Dorothy Shea on Monday and called for “the disarmament of the camps and placing them in the custody of the Lebanese army,” the state-run National News Agency reported.

On Sunday, Palestinian factions said in a joint statement that they had agreed to a ceasefire during a mediation meeting hosted by the Lebanese Shiite Amal movement and the Hezbollah terrorist group in the city Sidon, but the truce did not hold.

Some residents in Sidon neighborhoods near the camp have fled their homes after stray bullets hit buildings and shattered windows and storefronts. The public Sidon General Hospital evacuated its staff and patients.

A Fatah statement condemned the killing of its security official, saying the attack was part of a “bloody scheme that targets the security and stability of our camps.” It vowed to hold the “perpetrators accountable.”

The Hamas terror group, Fatah’s rival, issued its own statement Monday condemning the fighting and calling for dialogue to “spare the blood of our people and to preserve civil peace.” It called for the formation of an investigative committee to look into who was responsible for the clashes.

Lebanese caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati and Abbas both issued statements Sunday decrying the violence.

There are nearly 500,000 Palestinian refugees registered with UNRWA in Lebanon, although the actual number in the country is believed to be around 200,000, as many have emigrated but remain on UNRWA’s roster.

Palestinians in Lebanon are restricted in their rights to work and own property, and the vast majority of them live in poverty.

AFP contributed to this report.