At least 33 people have been wounded in renewed clashes between armed factions in Lebanon’s largest camp for Palestinian refugees, the Islamic Medical Association said on Friday.
The violence in Ain Al Hilweh between Fatah – the camp’s dominant faction – and militants affiliated with Al Qaeda started late on Thursday, breaking a weeks-long ceasefire.
Videos on social media showed dozens of residents escaping areas near the fighting on foot and in cars.
In another video, dozens of rocket-propelled grenades streaked from one end of the camp to the other as the sound of machinegun fire echoed in the area.
The fighting, which continued into Friday, caused a wave of displacement in the camp near the southern port city of Saida. A “large number” of Ain Al Hilweh residents fled their homes, heading towards the Musali mosque near the camp, NNA reported.
Local aid groups said at least 1,300 people had been displaced.
Mohammad Safadi, a member of the Musali Mosque committee who lives near Ain Al Hilweh, said 950 people from the camp and surrounding areas were sheltering at the mosque, which has become a central point for the relocation of displaced residents.
“Right now around 100 of the 950 people at the mosque are waiting to be transported to other locations in Saida,” he said. “We transported 350 people last night.”
He said the mosque committee had an emergency plan in place to move everyone to schools if the fighting, which was still continuing at noon, came too close to the mosque.
Ain Al Hilweh residents had been expecting renewed battles since last month, when fighting between Fatah and a small network of militants killed 13 people and displaced about 2,000.
Many of those displaced in the current round of fighting were also displaced last month.
Abu Mahmoud, a 75-year-old carpenter, said he and his family had left the camp on Thursday evening for the second time in a month after they heard the first sounds of battle.
“For a month, we haven't slept properly, wondering when the next round of fighting was going to come,” he told The National. “As soon as we heard the first explosion, we knew it was time to go.”
His furniture workshop was destroyed in the fighting that erupted in late July following the killing of an Islamist extremist.
The extremist's death, followed by an ambush that killed five Fatah members including military leader Abu Ashraf Al Armoushi, set off a chain of retaliatory clashes that lasted nearly a week, causing significant destruction within the camp.
Since then, the militants have fortified their positions in two UN compounds within the camp that contain eight schools, refusing to leave despite condemnation from the world body.
Fatah had previously given Islamist extremist groups – among them Al Qaeda-affiliated Jund Al Sham – a deadline to surrender the killers of Mr Al Armoushi, or face retribution.
The deadline passed last week without the killers being handed over.
“Intensive contacts” were being made between Lebanese and Palestinian leaders on Friday in an attempt to restore calm, Lebanese media reported.
Ain Al Hilweh is home to more than 54,000 registered refugees. It was created for Palestinian refugees who were forcibly expelled from their land in 1948 during the creation of what is now Israel.
In the past decade, the camp has earned a reputation for being a haven for outlaws and small networks of Islamist extremists.
Fatah has for years attempted to contain their presence.
While clashes in Ain Al Hilweh between rival factions are not uncommon, recent battles have been especially ferocious due to the high-profile nature of Mr Al Armoushi's assassination.
Thousands of Palestinians seeking refuge from Syria's civil war have also moved into the camp in recent years.
UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, called for factions to bring an urgent end to the fighting.
The violence, “along with the ongoing takeover of eight UNRWA schools, are preventing the access of nearly 6,000 children who are about to begin their school year”, it said.
The Lebanese University in Saida also announced the closure of its branches on Friday morning “for the safety of students, professors and employees”.
By long-standing convention, the Lebanese army does not enter Palestinian refugee camps, leaving residents to handle security.
Fatah, in a statement carried by state media, apologised “for the unintentional targeting and burning of civilian homes in the camp and the city”.