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At least 5 dead and 7 wounded in clashes inside crowded Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon

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Palestinian officials say at least five people have been killed and seven others wounded during clashes in Lebanon’s largest Palestinian refugee camp

BEIRUT -- Fighting raged Sunday in Lebanon's largest Palestinian refugee camp near the southern port city of Sidon, killing at least five people and wounding seven, Palestinian officials said.

UNRWA, the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, put the death toll at six, and Lebanon’s state-run National News Agency said two children were among those wounded.

The Palestinian officials, speaking to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity in line with regulations, said the fighting broke out after an unknown gunman tried to kill Islamist militant Mahmoud Khalil, killing a companion of his instead.

Later, Islamist militants shot and killed a Palestinian Military general from the Fatah group and three escorts as they were walking through a parking lot, another Palestinian official told AP.

Ein el-Hilweh is notorious for its lawlessness and violence is not uncommon. The U.N. says about 55,000 people live in the camp, which was established in 1948 to house Palestinians displaced by Israeli forces during the establishment of Israel.

On Sunday, factions blazed away with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers and lobbed hand grenades in the camp as ambulances zoomed through its narrow streets to take the wounded to the hospital.

The fighting stopped for several hours in the morning, though state media said there was still sporadic sniper fire, but fighting erupted again after the killing of the Palestinian general and his escorts.

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

The Lebanese army said in a statement that a mortar shell hit a military barracks outside the camp and wounded one soldier, whose condition is stable. Military commandos deployed near the camp's entrances as clashes continued into the night.

UNRWA said two of its schools that serve some 2,000 students were damaged in the fighting. It said it suspended all its operations in Ein el-Hilweh.

Fatah in a 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.”

In Ramallah, the office of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas issued a statement decrying violence in a camp for Palestinian refugees.

“No one is allowed to intimidate our people and tamper with their security,” it said. "We support what the Lebanese government is doing to impose law and order, and we affirm our commitment to Lebanon’s sovereignty, including the Palestinian refugee camps, and maintaining security and the rule of law.”

Late in the day, the 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 militant Hezbollah group in Sidon. But local media said fighting continued. A spokesperson from the Palestinian militant group Hamas told AP that the groups were working to implement the truce.

Lebanon's caretaker prime minister, Najib Mikati, condemned the clashes. “We call on the Palestinian leadership to cooperate with the army to control the security situation and hand over those meddling with security to the Lebanese authorities," Mikati said in his statement.

Palestinian factions in the camp for years have cracked down on militant Islamist groups and fugitives seeking shelter in the camp's overcrowded neighborhoods. In 2017, Palestinian factions engaged in almost a week of fierce clashes with a militant organization affiliated with the extremist Islamic State group.

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Associated Press writer Abby Sewell in Beirut contributed to this report.

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