Palestinian camp taken by al-Qaeda: Damascus

Syrian forces are amassing in Damascus around a Palestinian refugee camp, which the government claims has been taken over mainly by the al-Nusra Front — a group that has been aligned with al-Qaeda.

A combination of the al-Nusra Front Jihadists and members of the Free Syrian Army, in their hundreds, have apparently stormed the sprawling Yarmouk refugee camp, opening another front in the conflict between Syrian government forces and the armed opposition. The U.S. designated the al-Nusra Front a Foreign Terrorist Organisation on December 10.

On Sunday, the opposition claimed that Syrian warplanes had bombed the camp, insinuating that refugees were the victims. But Damascus has asserted that only the hardline Salafist groups who had entered the camp had been targeted. “Soldiers have amassed in large numbers and are preparing a military operation to cleanse the camp,” said the pro-government al-Watan newspaper.

The conflict in the camp is creating a grave humanitarian situation.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) — nodal organisation created by the General Assembly for providing support to the refugees — has said the camp is emptying out fast and by Tuesday, its population had halved.

The UNRWA confirmed that over the past several days, 150,000 refugees and Syrians have been caught up in “intense armed engagements involving the use of heavy weapons and aircraft”.

It said credible reports about civilian deaths and destruction of property apart, there had been “waves of significant displacement as Yarmouk residents, including UNRWA staff and their families, scramble to seek safety as the armed conflict persists”.

“Our conservative estimate would be that at least 50 per cent of the people living in the Yarmouk suburb have left or are leaving, taking refuge in other parts of Damascus, UNRWA schools and facilities or leaving altogether,” said Sami Mshasha, a spokesman for the UNRWA.

A separate statement from UNRWA lauded the support provided by Syria’s General Authority for Palestine Refugees (GAPAR), which it said “is essential for the Agency’s programmes and operations, including the ongoing response to the present situation”.

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