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Calm returns after clashes in Lebanese camp

Calm returned after heavy clashes erupted between Islamic militants and fighters of the mainstream Fatah faction in the densly populated Ain al-Helweh Palestinian refugee camp in southern Lebanon.


Quiet descended upon a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon on Saturday after a ceasefire between Islamic militants and fighters of the mainstream Fatah faction ended heavy clashes, a Fatah official said.

Rival fighters exchanged rocket fire for four hours into the evening in the main street in the densely populated Ain al-Helweh camp outside the southern port city of Sidon, prompting hundreds of civilians to flee.

Gunshots were subsequently heard in Sidon itself, with a Fatah leader saying at least four people had been wounded in the clashes with Jund al-Sham (Soldiers of Damascus) militants.

"There is a ceasefire ... the regrettable clashes that took place have ended" following mediation by another Islamist group, Fatah official Mounir al Makdah told AFP.

He said the Jund al-Sham fighters would leave the camp in the following hours and Fatah security agents would take control, with civilians which fled welcome to return on Saturday morning.

"There won't be a second Nahr al-Bared at Ain al-Helweh," said Makdah, referring to the three months of fierce fighting between Lebanese army and Fatah al-Islam militants that destroyed that Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon.

Makdah could not specify whether the wounded were civilians or fighters, and had no information on anyone being killed in the clashes.

There was no information immediately available from Jund al-Sham.

A Lebanese army spokesman had said that the fighting had been confined to the camp and that troops, which by longstanding convention do not enter Lebanon's dozen refugee camps, had not got involved.

The Lebanese army blocked the entrance to the camp, while allowing civilians to leave.

An AFP correspondent said over 100 Palestinian families fled the camp to take refuge in nearby Sidon.

The correspondent added that entire families took refuge in a neighbouring mosque, while others hid in cars which they had managed to take out of the camp, home to some 45,000 people.

Women and children sat forlorn on the pavements as others headed for Sidon.

A Palestinian official said that the militants of the Jund al-Sham (Soldiers of Damascus) had been angered by Fatah's seizure of a commander of the group and his handover to the Lebanese army.

"Yesterday (Thursday) the Fatah organisation in the camp kidnapped a member of Jund al-Sham named Samir Maarouf who is accused of carrying out bomb attacks inside the camp and outside," a Palestinian official told AFP asking not to be identified.

"The Fatah forces handed over Maarouf to the Lebanese army," the official said, adding that the captive was suspected of links to militant groups outside Lebanon.

Jund al-Sham, which has no clear hierarchy or particular leader, is believed to have about 50 militants armed with assault rifles, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades.

Its fighters joined Fatah al-Islam's fight against Lebanese troops in the Nahr al-Bared camp last year.

The group's name refers to the ancient Islamic term of Bilad al-Sham, a region which covers Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories.

Its members are mostly Lebanese, many of whom fought against the army during an Islamist rebellion that broke out on New Year's Eve in 1999 in the predominantly Sunni area of Dinnieh in north Lebanon and left 45 people dead.

The Sunni group also includes Palestinians, mostly dissidents of the fundamentalist Usbat al-Ansar (Band of Supporters), which was outlawed by Lebanese authorities in 1995 for murdering a rival cleric.

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