Three days of fighting in south Lebanon’s Ain al-Helweh Palestinian refugee camp have left at least 11 dead and dozens wounded, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees said on Monday.
Clashes broke out over the weekend between members of Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas’s secular Fatah movement and Islamist militants based in the camp, Lebanon’s largest located in the coastal city of Sidon.
Renewed gunfire and shelling on Monday shook the camp, said an AFP correspondent in Sidon, sending frightened residents fleeing.
“According to reports, 11 were killed and another 40 were injured, including one staff member” of UNRWA, said Dorothee Klaus, the UN agency’s director in Lebanon.
She added in a statement that UNRWA has “temporarily suspended” operations in the camp due to the fighting.
Palestinian factions said they had agreed on a truce on Sunday but it did not hold, with fighting continuing with automatic weapons and rocket fire.
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.
“UNRWA urgently calls on all parties to immediately return to calm and take all measures necessary to protect civilians, including children,” Klaus said.
The statement noted that “two UNRWA schools have sustained damaged” and more than 2,000 Ain al-Helweh residents had been forced to flee.
An AFP correspondent on Monday morning saw dozens of people, mostly women and children, leaving the camp carrying light luggage, while others took refuge in a nearby mosque.
Shells also fell outside the camp, AFP journalists said, with a nearby hospital evacuating patients and shops in Sidon closing fearing further escalation.
By long-standing convention, the Lebanese army does not enter Palestinian refugee camps in the country — now bustling but impoverished urban districts — leaving the factions themselves to handle security.
“We fled from the scene of the fighting, shells are raining in the streets,” a 75-year-old woman told AFP, requesting anonymity for security concerns.
She said armed factions were carrying weapons “to fight Israel, not to fight each other and become displaced”.
Ain al-Helweh, now home to more than 54,000 registered refugees, was created for Palestinians who were driven out or fled during the 1948 war that coincided with Israel’s creation.
In recent years, they have been joined by thousands of Palestinians who had been living in Syria and fled the war there.
Palestinian armed groups in Lebanon rarely confront Israel nowadays, but fighting between rival factions is common in Ain al-Helweh.
The latest violence began late Saturday, killing an Islamist and injuring six others, a Palestinian source inside the camp had told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity for security reasons.
The next day, a Fatah military leader and four of his colleagues were killed during a “heinous operation”, the group said.
Tiny Lebanon hosts an estimated 250,000 Palestinian refugees, according to UNRWA.
Most Palestinians, including more than 30,000 who fled the war in neighbouring Syria after 2011, live in one of Lebanon’s 12 official camps, and face a variety of legal restrictions, including on employment.