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Civilians flee as IS seizes part of Palestinian camp in Damascus

UN estimates 18,000 people trapped in Yarmouk as intense fighting rages for fourth day

Residents of the besieged Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp wait to leave the camp, on the southern edge of the Syrian capital Damascus, Syria, Feb. 4, 2014 (photo credit: AP/SANA)
Residents of the besieged Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp wait to leave the camp, on the southern edge of the Syrian capital Damascus, Syria, Feb. 4, 2014 (photo credit: AP/SANA)

BEIRUT — Civilians trapped in a Palestinian refugee camp in Syria’s capital fled to safer areas Saturday amid intense shelling and clashes between Palestinian armed factions and the Islamic militants who took over most of the camp, Syrian activists said.

A Damascus-based Palestinian official, Khaled Abdul-Majid, said the militants controlled about half of the Yarmouk camp, located on the edge of the Syrian capital.

Islamic State militants stormed the camp in southern Damascus on Wednesday, marking the extremist group’s deepest foray yet into the capital. Palestinian officials and Syrian activists said they were working with rivals from the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, the Nusra Front. The two groups have fought bloody battles against each other in other parts of Syria, but appear to be cooperating in the attack on Yarmouk.

The United Nations says around 18,000 civilians are trapped in Yarmouk, including a large number of children. The camp has been under government siege for nearly two years and has witnessed several rounds of ferocious and deadly fighting between government forces and militants.

UN aid workers have been sending food parcels into the camp in an effort to alleviate the extreme suffering inside.

An activist based in an area just south of Damascus, Hatem al-Dimashqi, said Saturday that rebel groups have launched a counteroffensive aimed at ousting the militants from the camp. He said a number of factions based inside the camp and in surrounding areas including Yalda, Babila and Beit Saham formed a joint operations command to coordinate their military action.

Al-Dimashqi, speaking from the edge of Yalda, said mosques in those areas were blaring calls for blood donations as hospitals received wounded civilians from Yarmouk.

In addition to the ground clashes, Syrian forces were shelling the camp. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported a Syrian government airstrike on Yarmouk, but said there was no immediate word on casualties.

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