Pales­tini­ans trapped as ji­hadists seize Syria camp

Late break­ing: 2,000 evac­u­ated from Yar­muk af­ter IS ad­vance: Pales­tini­ans

The China Post - - INTERNATIONAL -

Thou­sands of Pales­tinian civil­ians are trapped in Syria’s Yar­muk camp, which is be­sieged by gov­ern­ment forces and has been largely over­run by ji­hadist fighters, an op­po­si­tion of­fi­cial said Satur­day.

The camp in Da­m­as­cus is now al­most com­pletely un­der the con­trol of the Is­lamic State group (IS) and al-Qaida’s lo­cal branch alNusra Front, a mon­i­tor­ing group said.

The U.N. agency for Pales­tinian refugees UNRWA is­sued an ur­gent plea for hu­man­i­tar­ian ac­cess to the area, say­ing the sit­u­a­tion in Yar­muk was a “source of uni­ver­sal shame.”

Ji­hadists from IS first at­tacked the camp, just seven kilo­me­ters (four miles) from cen­tral Da­m­as­cus, on Wed­nes­day.

They were ini­tially re­pelled by Pales­tinian forces in­side Yar­muk, but have since cap­tured 90 per­cent of the sprawl­ing area.

“The res­i­dents of the camp are be­tween the devil and the deep blue sea,” said Ay­man Abu Hashem, who heads the Syr­ian op­po­si­tion in­terim gov­ern­ment’s com­mit­tee on Pales­tinian refugees.

“The camp is sur­rounded by the regime, and in­side the forces of IS have al­most com­pletely taken over.”

Abu Hashem said Pales­tinian forces from the Ak­naf Beit alMaqdis group, which is loyal to the Pales­tinian move­ment Ha­mas, were ef­fec­tively en­cir­cled by the ji­hadists.

And he said fears were run­ning high that IS would take re­venge in the camp be­cause mem­bers of the ji­hadist group were ex­pelled by res­i­dents and fighters last year.

The Syr­ian Ob­ser­va­tory for Hu­man Rights, a Bri­tain-based mon­i­tor, said ji­hadist forces now con­trolled 90 per­cent of Yar­muk, which was once home to 160,000 peo­ple, both Syr­ian and Pales­tinian.

Ob­ser­va­tory direc­tor Rami Ab­del Rah­man said Al-Nusra fighters were not bat­tling along­side IS forces, but were also not op­pos­ing its ad­vances.

18 Killed

Pales­tinian of­fi­cials ac­cused AlNusra of fa­cil­i­tat­ing IS’s en­trance into Yar­muk, where the pop­u­la­tion has dwin­dled to just 18,000 res­i­dents.

Al- Nusra and IS are largely ri­vals, de­spite shar­ing a sim­i­lar ji­hadist ide­ol­ogy, though there have been in­stances of lo­cal co­op­er­a­tion be­tween fighters from the two move­ments.

Ab­del Rah­man said at least 18 peo­ple had been killed since the fight­ing in the camp be­gan on Wed­nes­day, six civil­ians and 12 Pales­tinian fighters.

Two fighters were be­headed, he said, and pho­tos de­pict­ing two de­cap­i­tated heads pur­port­edly in the camp were cir­cu­lated by ji­hadists on so­cial me­dia.

The Ob­ser­va­tory also re­ported gov­ern­ment air strikes on the camp, though there was no im­me­di­ate in­for­ma­tion on ca­su­al­ties.

Yar­muk’s res­i­dents have suf­fered through regular clashes, gov­ern­ment shelling and a regime block­ade that has caused med­i­cal and food short­ages.

Syr­ian forces re­main out­side the camp, and sources said troops had set up ad­di­tional check­points around Yar­muk af­ter the fight­ing be­gan.

An agree­ment last June be­tween the gov­ern­ment and rebels, backed by Pales­tinian fac­tions, led to eas­ing of the block­ade.

But hu­man­i­tar­ian ac­cess has re­mained limited and was halted com­pletely with the ji­hadist ad­vance.

On Satur­day, UNRWA spokesman Chris Gun­ness de­scribed the sit­u­a­tion in the camp as “an af­front to the hu­man­ity of all of us, a source of uni­ver­sal shame.”

“The hu­man­i­tar­ian ac­tors on the ground, like UNRWA, must have im­me­di­ate ac­cess to bring ur­gent as­sis­tance to civil­ians,” Gun­ness said.

He urged “moral and diplo­matic lead­er­ship from the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity” to en­sure the pro­tec­tion of civil­ians.

Pales­tinian of­fi­cials in the West Bank and Gaza also called for ac­tion, and the Syr­ian op­po­si­tion Na­tional Coali­tion urged a safe pas­sage for civil­ians.

The body called for “ur­gent in­ter­ven­tion” from the Arab League and United Na­tions “to force the regime to open a safe pas­sage for the safety of civil­ians.”

In Khan Yunes in the south­ern Gaza Strip on Satur­day, around 300 Pales­tini­ans staged a march in sol­i­dar­ity with their com­pa­tri­ots trapped in Yar­muk, a Ha­mas of­fi­cial said.


A Pales­tinian child looks out from be­hind a hang­ing blan­ket at his home in Gaza City’s al-Shati refugee camp on Thurs­day, April 2.

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