Beirut — Palestinian families living on the outskirts of the Lebanese town of Sidon are fleeing the city following a series of murders, according to officials of the United Nations Welfare and Relief Agency (UNWRA).
UN officials describe this latest campaign against Palestinians in south Lebanon as ''a serious escalation'' of the harassment of Palestinians by armed gangs.
''The threat of execution if families do not (leave) their homes is actually being carried out for the first time,'' one UN official said. Four people, including a 15-year-old boy, have been killed since April 28. Two others have been severely wounded.
Nine years ago 660 Palestinian families moved to Sidon after the destruction of their refugee camp near the town of Nabatiyeh. The Lebanese government recently granted UNWRA permission to rebuild the camp and to allow the families to return to the town.
But during the past week armed men in face masks, claiming to belong to the Guardians of the Cedar (an extreme right-wing organization that wants to force the Palestinians out of Lebanon), have been visiting the families in the Salem building in Sidon and ordering them to leave their homes. The victims were killed after refusing to obey these orders.
UN officials say the recent killings differ from earlier campaigns against Palestinian civilians following Israel's invasion of Lebanon.
Informed sources say the killings are connected to the arrival in Sidon of Elie Hobeiqa, a senior Phalangist official who was linked by Israel's Kahane Commission to last year's massacre in Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.
UNWRA has repeatedly filed complaints with the governor of Sidon, who promised to increase Lebanese Army patrols. UN officials are careful not to point an accusing finger at Israel, whose troops control the town.
Wealthy Palestinians were forced to leave their homes in the hills above Sidon, but were allowed to sell their property for 70 percent of its value.
''Those families in the hills were not forced out because they are Palestinian, but because their property was very valuable,'' a well-informed Lebanese source said.