Lebanon News

Ain al-Hilweh tensions escalate with suspected killer at large

A general view of Ain al-Hilweh camp, April 29, 2019. (The Daily Star/Mohammed Zaatari)

SIDON, Lebanon: The Fatah Movement Monday threatened to launch a raid in the Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp to apprehend the suspected killer of one of its members, sparking fears that the operation would lead to destructive clashes in camp.

Mohammad Nazih Khalil, known as Abu al-Kel, was fatally shot Friday afternoon while on his way to visit a friend in the camp's Hettin neighborhood. The suspected killer was later identified as Fatah al-Islam-affiliated I.A.Kh., who is believed to be hiding out in Hettin, which is dominated by the “Muslim Shabab” group - formed of members of Fatah al-Islam and Jund al-Sham.

A Fatah Movement security source told The Daily Star Sunday that surveillance camera footage showed I.A.Kh. commit the murder with three accomplices and then flee into Hettin.

However, minutes after the shooting, a voice note said to have been sent by I.A.Kh. circulated, in which the speaker denied that he had killed Khalil. The speaker did not, however, deny being in the same street when the shooting happened, and bystanders said they saw I.A.Kh. at the scene.

Monday morning, head of the Fatah-led joint Palestinian security force Bassam Saad held a meeting with local committees from Hettin and the adjacent Loubye neighborhood, stressing that I.A.Kh. must be handed over. “If this is not done, we will have to raid the area he is hiding in and forcefully arrest him,” Saad said.

An investigation into the killing has been launched by a joint committee comprising the main Palestinian factions in Lebanon.

According to sources in Hettin, I.A.Kh. has said that investigators should come to him if they want to question him.

A source within the camp said that Fatah will likely conduct an operation “to bring in or kill” I.A.Kh., but said the group was keen to avoid sparking an all-out battle in the camp.

The source said that Lebanese security officials have issued multiple warnings to Palestinian officials to maintain calm and avoid clashes, particularly in the Hettin neighborhood, as it is meters away from the Sidon-Tyre Highway and multiple shops, including one that refills gas cylinders.

A statement released Sunday night by the Muslim Shabab said it was also opposed to waging a major battle, but nevertheless said it would be forced to respond to any attack.

The group alleged that Fatah was bringing in fighters from other camps in the country, suggesting this was a disproportionate response as Khalil’s killing could have been personal. “It is known that Mohammad Khalil Abu al-Kel had familial, security and moral problems with multiple parties ... so why bring in Fatah fighters from other camps? Do you want it to be a battle?”

The statement also claimed that Khalil had been involved with the detention of many of the Muslim Shabab’s members, but the group had not reacted because it “does not want to spark tensions.”

The group also called on residents of the camp to avoid fueling tensions and allow investigations to take their course.

Other sources previously told The Daily Star that Khalil had been warned of a possible assassination attempt and that members of Fatah al-Islam had indirectly alerted him that he was not welcome in Hettin.

As tensions escalated, Palestinian National Security Forces and Fatah Movement personnel deployed across the camp, while the Muslim Shabab has similarly boosted its presence in Hettin.

Factions were set to meet again at 2 p.m. to discuss the ongoing tensions and work toward removing armed personnel from the the streets.

 

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